‘This Is Who I Am’ raises curtain on Zoom theater

Playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi had to make a lot of choices when creating new Zoom-play “This Is Who I Am.” The most important could have been a culinary one.
“This Is Who I Am” reunites an estranged father (Ramsey Faragallah) and son (Yousof Sultani), separated by oceans, over Zoom as they each cook the same treasured family dish. Put on by PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company with our own American Repertory Theater and the Guthrie Theater and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the production features the actors cooking in real-time as they explore themes of grief and distance, both geographical and generational.
DEC. 14, 2020 – Ramsey Faragallah and Yousof Sultani in rehearsal for “This Is Who I Am.” Photo courtesy American Repertory Theater
“They cook fteer, a simple snack, a pastry filled with spinach and sumac,” Zuabi said from Palestine via Zoom. “I don’t know why, but I knew I didn’t want them to cook anything with meat. Instinctively, I wanted something with dough. I wanted the kneading element.”
“And it’s something I really love eating,” he said with a smile. “It’s quintessential Palestine somehow.”
Deciding what father and son would cook might have been easier than deciding if he would even create “This Is Who I Am.”
Zuabi is a great champion of theater. An award-winning playwright, he is also the artistic director of ShiberHur and served as associate director of Young Vic London from 2009 to 2017. But he wasn’t sure of how the art form would play out on Zoom. He still won’t commit to defining the production as theater.
“Virtual theater has always been problematic for me because theater has always been about getting together as a community and spending a moment in a real shared space with performers,” he said. “But what was clear when we first started was that I would feel comfortable if the Zoom was part of the plot. So the Zoom is ingrained into what is happening (in the production).”
Zuabi sees Zoom as a shared space but with limits. “We can see and hear each other through our screens but much of the sensory experience is erased or blunted.
“If they are cooking something together, they are sharing the smells and the noises and suddenly there is one ambiance,” he said. “If you are cooking a burger and I am cooking a burger, there are a lot of things that can help bridge these two walls of glass that we talk through.”
“This Is Who I Am” was born out of necessity and limitations. That makes it a new and untested enterprise. There’s something exciting and awkward about that. And Zuabi seems to feel that too.
“I think this is as close as I can think to theater now without it feeling like a compromise,” he said. “But if I’m being completely honest, I don’t know how it will feel when I am plopped in front of a computer watching two people interact live.”
“I should tell you it’s going to be fantastic and marvelous,” he added with a laugh. “But it is an experiment.”

Tickets and details at americanrepertorytheater.org.

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