Woolly Mammoth and PlayCo’s This Is Who I Am is the best play created during the pandemic that is not specifically about the pandemic. Presented in association with American Repertory Theater, Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s poignant, exquisitely told seventy-minute Zoom work is a treat for all five senses while exploring such issues as love, loss, loneliness, grief, memory, and distance, so much a part of our life amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
Zuabi, who was raised in Palestine, was the associate director of Young Vic London for eight years, and is now artistic director of the ShiberHur theater in Haifa, set his 2013 site-specific show, Oh My Sweet Land, in kitchens in real apartments, where small audiences would cram in and watch a woman cook while telling stories about Syrian refugees; everyone was handed a delicacy she made on the way out. This Is Who I Am also takes place in real kitchens, but in this case belonging to two actors portraying an estranged father and son reconnecting over Zoom; you might not get a bite of the spinach-and-onion-stuffed dumpling-like peasant dish known as fteer that they make together, but you will feel as if you can touch, smell, and taste it, in addition to watching and listening to their intimate, heart-tugging conversation. (However, you will get the recipe so you can prepare it yourself in your own kitchen.)
The father (Ramsey Faragallah) is Zooming in from his home in Ramallah, while the son (Yousof Sultani) is in New York, having left the West Bank city years ago to become an art curator, a job his manly, hardworking father fails to understand. As they go step-by-step through the recipe of their late wife/mother’s favorite dish, they talk about the past and delve deep into their relationship, which changed drastically during her prolonged illness. “She used to make such incredible food. Why this, why fteer?” the son asks. “It was the first thing she prepared for me,” the father replies. “She said to me, ‘This is who I am. I am a pocketful of surprises.’”
As they add the ingredients, the differences between them are revealed not only through the dialogue but by how they are making the dish. While the son uses modern utensils and measures everything precisely, the father uses his fingers and judgment with the salt and the sumac, the onions and the yeast. “You were always a horrible cook,” the son says, as if referring to his role as a father as well. The father declares that his lentil soup is to die for, which leads the son to quip, “Death is definitely one of the consequences that can occur as a result of your lentil soup.”
Making fteer together leads them to “fill the gaps” of their lives. When they brush on the olive oil, they remember the olive trees of Ramallah; where the father waxes poetic about the beauty, culture, tradition, and sustenance they represent, the son recalls that the “trees are drenched in blood. They live in a land that had so many people claim it, so many people die for it. You walk around those trees and you feel the reverence of history; I walk around those trees and I hear the shouts of slaughtered men that had to sacrifice themselves to keep it.” When the son insists that water has to be lukewarm, considering it a “safe” temperature, the father interprets that as his son yet again taking the easy way out, not going for the extremes of hot and cold. As they reach the end of the preparation and get ready to place the food in the oven, their topics grow ever-more-serious, with accusations and condemnations being squeezed out like the juice of a lemon, tart and bitter.
Turkish immigrant Evren Odcikin (When My Mama Was a Hittite, Nine Parts of Desire), the associate artistic director at OSF, directs the show with a natural, realistic grace, keeping the actors onscreen the entire time, next to each other in static boxes without camera movement, close-ups, or cuts; we’ve all been part of so many Zoom calls with friends and family and watched a multitude of live, online cooking programs that it’s easy to forget that this is a play and that the two men are fictional constructions. Instead, you’re likely to feel that you’re eavesdropping on an intensely private moment between two complex individuals as they intimately discuss trust, fear, memory, choice, disappointment, and what makes a person a hero.
LA-born actor, writer, and teacher Faragallah (The Profane, Homeland) and Northern Virginia native Sultani (Heartland, Photograph 51) are marvelous as father and son, fully embodying their characters just as the dish they are making brings their wife/mother to life. Faragallah portrays the strong and stalwart father with a tender vulnerability that is deeply affecting, while the handsome, hirsute Sultani is sensitive and authentic as the seemingly intractable, unyielding son who is harboring a critical secret. Just follow the movement of their eyes; they might not be in the same room, but their innate attachment is palpable.
In October, Woolly Mammoth’s Woolly on Demand season kicked off with Telephonic Literary Union’s fun Human Resources, which took place completely over the phone as a “choose your own adventure” series of prerecorded messages. This Is Who I Am comes to us live, in real time, via cameras in the actors’ homes in an honest, intrinsically human story that captures who we are and what we are facing without ever mentioning the pandemic we are suffering through; it’s a timeless story whose time is now, for people everywhere.
(This Is Who I Am continues through January 3; tickets are $15.99 for one and $30.99 for a household. On January 2, you can take part in a postshow community meetup hosted by A.R.T. with the Boston Palestine Film Festival by registering here. It’s also worth checking out the archived December 20 virtual panel discussion “Story as Resistance: The Joys, the Heartbreak, and the Food.”)
Who: Molissa Fenley, Jared Brown, Lloyd Knight, Sara Mearns, Shamel Pitts, Annique Roberts, Cassandra Trenary, Michael Trusnovec, Peter Boal
What: Livestreamed performances from the Joyce stage
Where: JoyceStream YouTube
When: October 24 - November 1, each dance $12, full Choreographers & Cocktails experience $150 per household
Why: In 1988, dancer and choreographer Molissa Fenley created State of Darkness, an American Dance Festival commission that is a solo set to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (“Rite of Spring”); the thirty-five-minute piece was performed exclusively by Fenley through 1994, then by Peter Boal in 1999-2000 and Rachel Foster, James Moore, and Jonathan Porretta of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in June 2007. With the pandemic lockdown, Fenley, who was born in Las Vegas, grew up in Nigeria, and has been based in New York City since 1975, is revisiting the work, presenting it live on the Joyce stage to an empty house, performed October 24-25 and October 31 - November 1 by seven dancers with their own interpretations, livestreamed via the JoyceStream YouTube channel, the first live show from the Joyce stage since March. The October 24 lineup features Michael Trusnovec (formerly Paul Taylor Dance Company) at 5:00 and Jared Brown (Shechter II — Hofesh Shechter Company) at 8:00; October 25, Annique S. Roberts (Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, A Dance Company) at 5:00 and Shamel Pitts (formerly Batsheva Dance Company) at 8:00; October 31, Lloyd Knight (Martha Graham Dance Company) at 5:00 and Cassandra Trenary (American Ballet Theatre) at 8:00; and concluding November 1 with Sara Mearns (New York City Ballet principal) at 5:00. There will also be a behind-the-scenes discussion of the work on October 24 at 7:00 with Fenley and the dancers, moderated by Boal.
“It has been truly inspiring and uplifting to see the dancers and Molissa tackle State of Darkness during this difficult and unprecedented interruption to our lives,” Joyce executive director Linda Shelton said in a statement. “To me, this piece is about emerging from the darkness we have been coping with since March.” Fenley added, “In 1988, environmental, political, and social unrest inspired me to create State of Darkness. Today, a response to similar influences affecting us feels even more urgent and necessary.” Tickets for each individual dance is $12; the complete Choreographers & Cocktails experience, including all seven performances, an interview with Fenley, a live Q&A with the dancers, and a signature cocktail recipe by chef Peter Kelly, is $150 per household.
Who: Jelani Alladin, Jacqueline Antaramian, Antonio Banderas, Laura Benanti, Kim Blanck, Ally Bonino, Danielle Brooks, Jenn Colella, Elvis Costello, Daniel Craig, Alysha Deslorieux, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Holly Gould, Danai Gurira, Stephanie Hsu, David Henry Hwang, Oscar Isaac, Nikki M. James, Alicia Keys, John Leguizamo, John Lithgow, Audra McDonald, Grace McLean, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kelli O’Hara, Mia Pak, Suzan-Lori Parks, David Hyde Pierce, Phylicia Rashad, Liev Schreiber, Martin Sheen, Phillipa Soo, Meryl Streep, Trudie Styler, Sting, Will Swenson, Shaina Taub, Kuhoo Verma, Ada Westfall, Kate Wetherhead
What: Virtual celebration and fundraiser
Where: Public Theater, Facebook, YouTube
When: Tuesday, October 20, free (donations accepted), 8:00
Why: Originally planned for June 1 but delayed because of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Public Theater is now holding its gala fundraiser online on October 20. “Forward. Together.” features appearances and performances by a wide range of actors, musicians, playwrights, and other creators, sharing songs and stories, from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Antonio Banderas, Elvis Costello, Daniel Craig, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and John Leguizamo to Danielle Brooks, Jenn Colella, Audra McDonald, Phillipa Soo, Meryl Streep, and Suzan-Lori Parks, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. One of the highlights will be Jelani Alladin performing a brand-new song from the Public Works production of Hercules. The cochairs are Kwame Anthony Appiah, Candia Fisher, Joanna Fisher, Laure Sudreau, and Lynne Wheat, honoring Audrey and Zygi Wilf and Sam Waterston; the evening is directed by Kenny Leon, with music direction by Ted Sperling.
Admission is free but donations will be accepted; twenty-five percent of the proceeds will go to eight Public Works partner organizations and Hunts Point Alliance for Children. You can also participate in the online auction, where you can bid on such items as a virtual conversation with Queen Latifah and Lee Daniels, a coffee chat with Liev Schreiber, ten years of premium reserved tickets to the Delacorte for Shakespeare in the Park, a private Zoom cooking class with Andrew Carmellini, and lunch (on Zoom or in person) with Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis. The Public has presented several outstanding productions during the pandemic, including The Line, What Do We Need to Talk About?, and the current audio play Shipwreck, so give if you can to help support this ongoing dream from Joe Papp.
Who: Daniele Uditi, Dave Beran, Greg Dulan, John Cleveland, Roni Cleveland, Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo, Jonathan Whitener, Ludo Lefebvre, Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger, Nick Montgomery, Steve Samson, Wes Avila, Alice Waters, Ana Roš, Dominique Crenn, Éric Ripert, Ferran Adrià, Fuchsia Dunlop, José Andrés, Josh Niland, Lamar Moore, Musa Daĝdeviren, Zaiyu Hasegawa, Jenn Harris, Laurie Ochoa, Evan Kleiman, Lisa McRee, Phil Rosenthal, Danny Trejo, Jack Black, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eric Wareheim, more
What: Virtual food event benefiting World Central Kitchen and the Food Bowl Takeout & Give Back campaign
Where: Los Angeles Times YouTube and Facebook
When: Saturday, October 17, free with advance RSVP, 8:30
Why: Craving travel and good food? You can get a bit of both at the LA Times Cook-a-thon, taking place virtually on October 17 at 8:30. Several dozen chefs, gourmands, gourmets, food writers, and celebrity guests from LA and around the globe will share culinary tales, lead kitchen tours, give recipes, and discuss the dire situation the restaurant business finds itself in during the coronavirus crisis. A fundraiser for José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen and the LA Times Food Bowl Takeout & Give Back initiative, the cook-a-thon will feature appearances by Daniele Uditi, Dave Beran, Greg Dulan, John Cleveland and Roni Cleveland, Mary Sue Milliken, Alice Waters, Ana Roš, Éric Ripert, Musa Daĝdeviren, Zaiyu Hasegawa, Phil Rosenthal, Danny Trejo, Jack Black, Jamie Lee Curtis, and many more. Admission is free; be sure to come hungry.
Who: Jessica Flores, Enrique Sapene, John Leguizamo, Edward James Olmos, Jessica Alba, Oscar De La Hoya, Mario Lopez, Carlos Ponce, Melissa Fumero, Xolo Mariduena, Aymee Nuviola, Laith Ashley, Ellen Ochoa, Pitizion, Victor Ramos, RaqC, Rebecca Antonia Rodriguez, Kim Guerra, John Henry, Julian Castro, more
What: Live virtual gathering of Latinx influencers, content creators, entrepreneurs
When: Thursday, October 15, free with RSVP, noon - 6:00
Why: Hispanicize is following up its July 1 summit, which you can watch here, with another virtual gathering of Latinx creators and influencers, this time in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month and with an eye to the upcoming presidential election. The Hispanicize #UnidosTogether Virtual Summit is taking place October 15 from noon to 6:00, including keynote addresses, roundtable discussions, performances, and breakout sessions featuring appearances by Jessica Flores, Enrique Sapene, John Leguizamo, Edward James Olmos, Jessica Alba, Carlos Ponce, Melissa Fumero, Xolo Mariduena, Aymee Nuviola, Laith Ashley, Ellen Ochoa, Pitizion, Victor Ramos, RaqC, Rebecca Antonia Rodriguez, Kim Guerra, Father Augustino Torres, John Henry, Julian Castro, and many more, hosted by Jessica Flores and Enrique Sapene. Below are only some of the special events; you can also check out Hispanicize’s VODcasts here.
DJ Mando Fresko Pre-Show, 11:30
Welcome & Blessing, with cohosts Jessica Flores and Enrique Sapene, noon
Keynote: Jessica Alba in conversation with Anne Vazquez, 12:15
Latinx Hollywood, with Julissa Calderon, Melissa Fumero, Ben Lopez, and Xolo Maridueña, 12:45
Latinx Unity & Empowerment, with Kim Guerra, John Leguizamo, Edward James Olmos, Monica Ramirez, and Claudia Romo Edelman, 1:15
Keynote: Oscar De La Hoya in conversation with Mario Lopez, 2:30
Latin Music Industry: Rising Stars, with Mariah Angeliq, Pitizon, Byron Salas, Anaid Quijada, and RaqC, 3:30
Hispanic Kitchen with Chef Eddie Garza, 4:15
Latinx Vote 2020, with Cristela Alonzo, Mayra Macias, Mike Madrid, Alicia Menendez, and , 5:10Henry Muñoz III
Meet Andrekza: Dim Mak En Fuego’s First Latina Artist, 5:45
DJ Chava & After Party, 6:00
Who: Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Doug E. Fresh, Harlem Music Festival All Star Band, Ray Chew, Alyson Williams, the Georgie Gee Orchestra
What: Harlem Week special event
Where: Harlem Week
When: Sunday, August 23, free with RSVP, 1:00
Why: The forty-sixth annual Harlem Week celebration has been a virtual potpourri of fun events that continue this weekend with an online 5K run, a vendor village, live music, a fashion show, dance parties, discussions, a story slam, film screenings, and foodie programs. The highlight could very well be Harlem Day on August 23, which features appearances by the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (performing “Chamber Music of the Harlem Renaissance” by Duke Ellington and Harold T. Burleigh, with clarinetist David Shifrin, pianists Gloria Chien and Wu Han, and violinist Chad Hoopes), Doug E. Fresh, the Harlem Music Festival All Star Band featuring Ray Chew with special guests, and Jazzmobile Great Jazz on the Great Hill with Alyson Williams and the Georgie Gee Orchestra. (Stevie Wonder had been on the bill for a talk with Fresh but that seems to no longer be happening.) Admission to Harlem Week is free with registration. Have a great day!
Who: Sharon Lawrence, Yvette Cason, Devere Rogers, Galen J. Williams, Jason “Freckle” Green, Eugene Byrd, T. C. Carson, Larry Powell
What: Premiere of new digital series
Where: Facebook, YouTube, Twitch
When: Thursdays, July 30 - August 27, free with RSVP, 10:00
Why: Many theater festivals are going virtual these days because of the pandemic lockdown, and joining the parade is the Evergreen Festival, albeit this one is an all-new, fictional work of metatheater itself, created by actor and playwright Larry Powell. The five-week series follows the life and career of openly queer Black actor Jerome Price over the course of fifty years, beginning with “…NO HOMO.” On its GoFundMe page, Powell explains, “In between protests, self-care, virtual funerals, and starting a full-on performing arts academy all in the span of a couple of months . . . in partnership with Angelica Robinson’s Tell Me a Story Productions and with a small army of multicultural artists and activists, I made this piece of artivism. The Gaze is a cycle of plays that examines the process of building culturally specific and queer works of color in historically white spaces. It tackles hard topics like racism head-on. It wrestles with the question: Why strain to be free under a gaze fixed on your imprisonment when it’s you who is holding the key? Why stay? Go where?” The impressive cast features Yvette Cason, Devere Rogers, Galen J. Williams, Jason “Freckle” Green, Eugene Byrd, T. C. Carson, and Sharon Lawrence as Evergreen Theatre Festival interim artistic director Miranda Cryer; you can learn more about her and the festival in the below prologue as well as watch a tech rehearsal here.
Presented as the online gathering “Fire Circle: A Celebration of Black, LGBTQIA & BIPOC Lives” with DJs and postshow discussions with artists and activists, each episode can be seen for free on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitch from Thursday nights at 10:00 until the next Sunday at 11:59 pm. “Building this work has brought me through the poison of the past to the medicine of the present moment. This work puts the pain into the fire so that it may alchemize into power,” Powell recently posted on social media. “Theater is sacred ritual and it extends into all forms of media. It cannot be left behind. It is the foundation and basis of all forms. Find the theater in anything you do and there you will find the boundless strength and resilience of the human spirit.”