For a father and son, food brings it all back home
Is home really where the heart is? Or are you someone who has always been struggling to break the bonds of your homeland, especially if that homeland has been for many generations racked by turmoil and discord?
A father and son – one in Ramallah and one in New York City – seek to reconnect during a Zoom video chat while making a traditional Palestinian dish called Fteer. As each ingredient is added and is produced on stage in real time, the food serves as the backdrop as the duo struggle to find common ground.
“This Is Who I Am” is a new play by playwright Amir Nizar Nuabi that is being streamed live nightly through Jan. 3, presented by the Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company of Washington and PlayCo of New York City, in association with the Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and, locally, the American Repertory Theater of Cambridge.
At a recent performance, the audio was out of sync at the beginning but the technicians regrouped and began the 65-minute production again after a 15-minute delay, and it then flowed smoothly throughout.
It quickly becomes apparent that there is more than distance that separates the two characters. The father (Ramsey Faragallah) and son (Yousof Sultani) are estranged, in great part because of what happened during the three-year illness of their late wife and mother.
Then there was an incident when the family was living in Jericho and the son was just 11, when the son was beset by bullies and the father chose not to intercede, sending him back out to face the bullies alone.
The food being prepared is a familiar recipe – Palestinian “comfort food” dismissed by the son as a “peasant dish” – as the duo spar about their relative cooking skills, but it merely serves as an appetizer as the two finally get down to the meat of the matter: Why did the son leave and, when his mother was dying, only to return home for two short stays?
Broadcast live for each performance, the two actors perform a balancing act between care and resentment, closeness and vast separation, as they cook in real time over a Zoom video chat.
Past resentments bubble up and boil over like a sauce left on an unattended stove, and the father expresses regret about an incident involving his pregnant wife and a soldier that put the father in prison for 17 months and absent when his son was born.
But at the heart of the will be a promise made by the son to his dying mother years before, a promise that had helped widen the gulf between father and son.
Bit by bit – ingredient by ingredient – the distance between the men decreases as they recall the warmth of the woman they mourn, and the wonderful dishes they shared, including the one they are making that very evening.
Can they bridge the gap and come to an understanding that will allow them to be, once again, a family?
Director Evren Odchikin and the technical staff carefully piece together the two performances to seamlessly connect the split-screen technology and create one continuous theatrical landscape.
We root for the father and son to find common ground in their food and to connect again, even as we are struggling to stay connected to our loved ones as a pandemic rages around us.
“This Is Who I Am.” By Amir Nizar Zuabi. Directed by Evren Odcikin. Presented by PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in Association with American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Live- streamed through Jan. 3 Tickets for the show start at $15.99 for a single viewer and $30.99 for a household. Tickets available by going to http://www.woollymammoth.net