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The Black Eyed

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

(clockwise from top) Aysan Celik, Lameece Issaq, Jeanine Serralles, and Emily Swallow.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Don't be fooled by all the pink plywood: The biggest mistake you could make about the four women framed by the rose-colored walls and stairs on the New York Theatre Workshop stage is thinking they're only soft, feminine things waiting for men to solve their problems. Their lives have been irrevocably altered by men, true, but they're here entirely of their own volition, to get the answers they've been denied to some of history's most important questions. All of which, for the record, lie beyond a simple door where all the martyrs who have ever lived are communing for eternity.

Whether their assumption is correct is only one of many mysteries that makes Betty Shamieh's new play The Black Eyed so riveting. These four women share little beyond their Palestinian heritage - they come from all different eras and upbringings - but as quickly becomes clear, that's both everything and nothing in a world where persecution and oppression wait around every corner. They've come to the martyr's door to find solace, but attaining it is hardly easier where they are now - wherever that is; that's another burning question - than it was before.

At first glance, The Black Eyed doesn't much mimic Shamieh's other plays. Her five-part monologue sequence Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America and her scorching domestic drama Roar wore a tight mantle of realism that seemed determined to emphasize the latter part of "Arab-American." They were titles that challenged intellectually and emotionally but seldom theatrically, working within established frameworks to give inescapably human voice to a performer currently facing more suspicion, fear, and enmity than ever before.

This alone was enough to help establish her as perhaps the most important and talented of young playwrights in America, but now she reveals herself as a daring artist as well. She travels not only beyond the boundaries of convention, into a realm where the distinction between experience and poetry is almost nonexistent, but beyond our own borders as well. This allows her to seek (and find) in the Palestinian struggle a universal connection to the misfits and the maligned in all of us - while pleading for the tolerance everyone is by their birth due.

Each of her subjects illustrates a different characteristic often seen as a caricature: Delilah (Emily Swallow) used her instincts to bring down the bully Samson and capture Bible headlines; Tamam (Lameece Issaq), whose name means "enough," was raped during the Christian Crusades and lost her brother to the war; and a woman known only as The Architect (Jeanine Serralles), from modern-day America, had a passion for her art and for life itself that were constantly subsumed by men and, ultimately, in flames as well.

What of the fourth? Aiesha (Aysan Celik) is apparently their pre-appointed guide on this unusual journey: She meets them outside the martyr's door, and informs them that she's been inside and left again (a feat supposedly impossible), and that she doesn't think they'll survive the experience if they pass over the threshold. Her own past, though, is as cloudy as the others': She arrived in this place, "where everything you believe to be true is true," anticipating a hundred virtuous men waiting to satisfy her every whim, the male equivalent of houris, "hot virgins whose virginity is continually renewed, also known as the Black Eyed."

This explains a great deal about Shamieh's play, but it gives away practically nothing: Merely knowing who these women are and what they sacrificed is not the same as truly knowing them. As each tells her story, often amplified and echoed by the other women acting as a type of Greek chorus, you're forced to strip away your own preconceptions until everyone, even Aiesha (whose explosive, two-word appellation you can probably guess) becomes a symbol not of a race or a gender but of individuality. As Aiesha says of her specific transgression, "You can't look at the specifics of my particular life in order to understand why I did it."

In fusing these lives together, Shamieh and director Sam Gold have created a powerful platform for understanding the misunderstood. Gold's staging fully realizes Shamieh's vision of the afterlife as an orderly mess of a montage of sound and motion, which are given even stronger shape by Paul Steinberg's deceptively barren set, Jane Cox's unforgiving lights, and Gabriel Berry's culture-clash costumes. The repressed pain that informs Issaq's every carefully chosen hand gesture, the implicitly accepted sexiness of Swallow's Delilah that's all but indistinguishable from sadness, and the complex reflection of a life lived at others' behest that's just barely visible the eyes of Serralles Architect are all key to realizing Shamieh's true point: No choice is ever made in a vacuum.

Celik doesn't bring quite the same depth to Aiesha, and settles instead for a portrayal that builds the character from her (mostly non-descript) appearance on inward. This is less viscerally involving than the other actors' work, but in its own way is perhaps the show's most appropriate performance: At no point can you definitively state that you know Aiesha by what she looks like or what she says.

No, you can judge her only by what she does. Whatever she and the other women might think about where they've ended up, this fact alone places The Black Eyed not in Heaven or in Hell, but squarely on Earth. In this subversively brilliant play, Shamieh reminds us that might be the most frightening and unpredictable place of all.

The Black Eyed
Through August 19
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (Between 2nd Avenue and Bowery)
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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