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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Zafira and the Resistance
New Arab American Theater Works
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Canopic Jar of My Sins, Rogue Prince and A Winter's Tale

Filsan Said, LIma Jamoul, Rasha Ahmad Sharif,
and Noor Adwan

Photo by Bruce Wilcox
Zafira Khoury is a Lebanese-American teacher of world literature at fictional Eagleton High School. Her Lebanese heritage is significant, a point of pride to her and a source of suspicion among those around her. Set some time in a dystopian—though hardly unimaginable—future, Zafira is vilified for assigning her students homework when they have a big resistance pep rally to attend, for not displaying a portrait of The Leader prominently in her classroom, and for teaching literature by such worthless foreigners as Nelson Mandela rather than trustworthy American authors—even if her course is titled "world lit." She is accused of promoting her Islamist views to her students, even after she reminds her principal that she is not a Muslim—Lebanon being primarily a Christian nation.

Kathryn Haddad's gripping play Zafira and the Resistance is having a world premiere run in the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio Theater, produced by New Arab American Theater Works. In 2011 that same company staged an earlier, shorter version called Zafira the Olive Oil Warrior, produced by Pangea World Theater. Haddad states that the earlier play was inspired by the wave of Islamophobia across the United States after the September 11 attacks, in tandem with learning about the internment camps in which Japanese-American citizens were held during World War II. She updated and expanded that play in light of the political shock waves felt in the United States since our most recent presidential election.

Haddad imagines a future with such internment camps built to house Muslims, those thought to be sympathetic to Muslims, and any aliens who may threaten the American way of life. That way of life is defined by The Leader, whom we see only in video broadcasts on giant screens looming over every classroom in the United States. The Leader, with a beaming, smarmy smile, calls on youth to join the "Resistance Club"—which, in spite of its name, does not resist oppression, but whips up hatred against religious and cultural minorities, especially Muslims and immigrants. The Resistance Club bears a striking resemblance to the Hitler Youth of Germany's Third Reich, as when one of the teachers nonchalantly tells a student who is reluctant to join, "it's mandatory, so it's not really a club," and when The Leader directs students to report on neighbors, classmates, even teachers, who may be a danger to America.

In this updated version of Haddad's play, Zafira continues to champion olive oil, praising its flavor, nutritional value, medicinal qualities, sensuality as an ointment, and the beautiful trees on which it grows. She carries a vial of olive oil with her, much to the amusement of her all-American colleagues Deb and Joyce. Zafira is the only teacher to show respect to the school custodian, a Japanese-American named Kenji, and to be concerned about Elisa, a Hispanic student who clearly has troubles and fears. Jamie, a senior-year student, is rabidly enthusiastic about serving the resistance—not only because she idolizes The Leader, but because it will look so good on her college applications.

The play's first act takes place in and just outside Eagleton High School. Women are seen on a catwalk above the stage, representing those who are in danger under The Leader's command. That same catwalk is used to stage portions of the narrative, which sometimes disperses the audience's focus, but does allow co-directors Malek Najjar and Zeina Salame to use larger, more varied spaces in which to tell the story. The second act takes place in one of the camps, one designated for women. Here, Zafira and the women earlier seen on the catwalk find themselves sharing common ground, despite their very varied backgrounds.

Like Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here" and Phillip Roth's "The Plot Against America," both of which demonstrate the plausibility of a totalitarian government slipping through our constitutional checks and balances and taking over the United States, Haddad depicts an American society in the thrall of a charismatic leader who creates clay targets at which to direct hate, fear and disaffection. In this world, the worst possible offense is to be viewed as "the other." Haddad does not show us how this turn of events came about, only the horrid consequences of its coming. The name Donald Trump is never uttered, but some references to immigrants, to those who don't speak fluent English, and to Muslims are not far afield from presidential tweets and the talk show banter that panders to them.

Lina Jamoul plays Zafira, the heart and continuous thread that runs through the play. She exudes the virtue and integrity of a teacher committed to her students and to knowledge, and not swept away by the jingoistic histrionics peddled by The Leader, even at great cost to her own safety. Jamoul's Zafira is smart enough to know that even if she wanted to play along, she would never fully be one of "them," she would always be marked as an outsider. Instead of hiding her predicament, she draws strength from it.

The three women with whom she shares her room in the camp—played by Noor Adwan, Filsan Said, and Rasha Ahmad Sharif—form a wonderful second act ensemble, winning one another's trust despite their differences: a Syrian refugee who speaks no English and notes the irony of her son bringing her from Syria to America to be safe; a Somali woman whose husband was arrested months ago and thus doesn't know that she is pregnant; a 17-year-old torn between her American mom and Palestinian dad, neither one of whom claim her; and Zafira. Each of these four actors create a whole character. Together they form a community that becomes a source of their strength. When they talk about favorite Middle-Eastern dishes, their shared bliss in savoring imagined flavors is palpable.

Heidi Berg is a wolf in sheep's clothing as Principal Munson, nicey-nice on the outside, but ready to fiercely attack any who stray from the path. Garry Geiken appears only in videos as The Leader, but his calm, honey-dripped fascism is evident enough to set one's teeth on edge. As Jamie, Eva Gemlo depicts the essence of hate and self-promotion disguised as a do-gooder, one who is convinced that whatever is to her benefit is intrinsically virtuous. Stephanie Ruas draws sympathy while depicting strength as Elisa, who does not cave in to the pressures to conform, even when her own safety is on the line. Mireille Al Ahmar and Erika Kuhn come off a bit as caricatures in their depiction of bubbly but shallow teachers, but there is a slice of truth in their performances as well. Clay Man Soo's Kenji seems too much at peace with the harsh legacy of his family and the sight of history repeating itself. Sure, we expect him to keep his head down to avoid being drawn into the fray, but also expect that, given an opening, a seething fire would erupt beneath his calm.

The tech and design elements for Zafira and the Resistance all work well to support the production and the play's themes. Ali Elabbady in particular adds flavor to the production through his sound design. Laurie Clements captures the different shades of professional garb between the principal, the white teachers, and Zafira, whose dress is professional but also acknowledges her cultural roots.

The play could use a bit of tightening. Key ideas are repeated to the point of redundancy, and each of the two acts could probably lose a few minutes. Here and there, dialogue feels forced or clumsy, such as when, after a month together, one of Zafira's camp roommates asks her what she writes in her journal day after day. It hardly seems likely that, under their circumstances, a month would pass before anyone asked that question, so when someone does, it feels like stage talk, not actual conversation.

Certainly, as a new play, continued work can make it even better, but as it stands Zafira and the Resistance tells an important cautionary story, posing situations that are not impossible to imagine in our future, and calling on the audience to consider their own responses, both in thought and deed. Zafira and the Resistance has crucial things to say, spoken by voices not often heard on our stages, and says them with compelling force.

Zafira and the Resistance, a production of New Arab American Theater Works, runs through October 27, 2019, at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $32.00. For information and tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit

Playwright: Kathryn Haddad; Director: Malek Najjar and Zeina Salame; Scenic Design: Hend Al-Mansour; Costume Design: Laurie Clements; Lighting Design: Michael Wangen; Sound Design: Ali Elabbady; Videographer: Jordan Lee Thompson; Stage Manager and Properties: Erika Sasserville; Assistant Stage Manager: Nouf Saleh.

Cast: Hala Adwan (Olivia Branch), Noor Adwan (Karmel Khaled), Mireille Al Ahmar (Joyce Hanson), Heidi Berg (Principal Munson), Garry Geiken (Great Leader), Eva Gemlo (Jamie Nordgren), Joey Haddad (Oliver Pittman), Lina Jamoul (Zafira Khoury), Erika Kuhn (Deb Johnson), William J. Maus (Marcus Jenkins), Stephanie Ruas (Elisa Martin), Filsan Said (Leylo Khalif), Rasha Ahmad Sharif (Samira Kheir), Clay Man Soo (Kenji Tanaka).