The single set across LaMama’s The Downstairs is the Wall. Not a mock-up of the geographically impossible one threatened for the U.S./Mexico borders, but the equally controversial Israel−Gaza security barrier. A lightning rod in U.S-Middle Eastern diplomacy, in Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Grey Rock, it cannot block creativity or dignity.
Zuabi, who also directed his play for the newly-formed Remote Theater, provides a blast-off point for The Occupation. Part of the wall opens revealing Yusuf (Khalifa Natou), a retired TV repairman and former political prisoner, studying blueprints in his shed. Without telling his daughter Lila (Fida Zaidan) or young friend Sheik (Motaz Malhis), Yusuf is building a rocket to go to the moon. Soon Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian), the delivery man with a physics background not-so-secretly in love with Lila, discovers the secret and joins the mission. Eventually Sheik, Lila and her straitlaced fiance Jawad (Alaa Shehada) discover the truth and the idea takes flight.
While politics, religion and American influence are all constants, what Grey Rock is really about dreaming big. When the devout Sheik declares the intended launch “an act of vanity,” Yusef responds, calling his plans “an act of confidence” by providing a passionate, gentle reminder of how the power of science leads to the better of all and shared pride in accomplishment. Yusef’s admiration for the America of 50 years ago that supported the space program is both infectious and bittersweet.
A plot bound by reality but lit with stars can be tricky – especially when performing in non-native English. But the Palestinian actors were natural reacting to the unusual events they experienced and in delivering their reactions to them, Zaidan’s Lila also provided a potent glimpse into what life is like for Palestinian women.
Grey Rock‘s deus ex machina is not unexpected, but offers surprise; even solace. The mission of Remote Theater Project is bringing artists “isolated, either geographically or politically,” to New York City to develop and provide a platform for new work could not be better expressed than in their premiere production.