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OSF collaboration: A father-son drama on Zoom

It’s a story of the times in which we live.

An estranged father and son, separated by continents, reunite over Zoom from their respective kitchens in Ramallah, Palestine, and New York City. They prepare a cherished family recipe as they struggle to bridge the gap between them, one ingredient at a time.

The narrative is the foundation of a new play for two actors by Amir Nizar Zuabi. “This Is Who I Am” is a story told with humor and humanity through the intimacy of a video call. It explores the unpredictable nature of grief and the delicacy of family connection across geographical and generational divides.

The online world premiere run is directed by Evren Odcikin, associate artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Previews begin Saturday, Dec. 5, with the official opening set for Sunday, Dec. 13.

The play, which will stream live in real time, is a joint production of PlayCo in New York City and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., in association with OSF, American Repertory Theater (ART) at Harvard University, and Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

A calendar of performance dates and times through Jan. 3, and tickets at $15.99 each or $30.99 per household, are available at woollymammoth.net.

Preview performance tickets are available for $5 with the code EVERYONE5, designed to make the play accessible to the widest possible audience.

One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been an opportunity for national and international collaborations on digital projects such as this one.

“A small, crazy idea like doing a live play every night with cooking can get access to this sort of platform,” Odcikin said.

Playwright Zuabi, a world-renowned Palestinian writer, was commissioned by PlayCo and Mammoth, longtime supporters of his work. Odcikin was approached because of his history with Zuabi at Golden Thread Productions, which specializes in Middle East themes. ART in Boston, where Zuabi had worked before, became part of the project. And Guthrie came into the picture because its artistic director, Joseph Haj, is the play’s production dramaturg.

Haj has directed at OSF numerous times. With both his and Odcikin’s involvement, it was an easy yes for OSF to sign on.

Zuabi, who grew up in Palestine, moved to London for a time and currently resides in Jaffa, a Palestine city that came under Israeli occupation after the 1948 war.

“I left my country at a certain point,” he said, “and remember these awkward long-distance conversations. Now, many hours of my day have been spent Zoom-ing.”

He says one of his biggest frustrations these days is that people can be close yet distant at the same time.

“I can look at people’s houses and feel very intimate with them,” he said, “but at the same time we’re deprived of our sensory (cues) and are separated by walls of glass. But if two people are both cooking the same dish, at least the smells and noises are similar, so suddenly we are creating a mutual world.”

Zuabi grieves the loss of his parents four and five years ago and millions grieve from the pandemic. Both inform his story.

“This play for me is about grief and the way we negotiate it,” he said. “It’s about distance and how we negotiate it. It’s about manhood and how we negotiate it. And it’s about love and how it negotiates us.”

It isn’t the first play by Zuabi to have a culinary connection. In 2017, Golden Thread Productions, where Odcikin was a resident artist, presented the West Coast premiere of Zuabi’s “Oh My Sweet Land,” a tour-de-force based on interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Instead of staging the play in a theater, the company presented the show in kitchens around the Bay Area with performances followed by food sharing and conversation.

“This Is Who I Am” is Odcikin’s directorial debut for OSF.

“I’m so excited that it is this play that is introducing my work to our audiences,” he said. “It’s a beautiful play about masculinity, connection, and grief that feels especially resonant right now.”

The cast includes Ramsey Faragallah as the father and Yousof Sultani as the son. Faragallah is originally from Los Angeles, known for his television work on “Bull,” “Homeland,” and “The Blacklist,” as well as for his work in films. Sultani has acted in stage productions around the country and in film and television.

The design team, working with the actors to adapt their home kitchens for live performances, includes Mariana Sanchez (set), Dina El-Aziz (costume consultant), Reza Behjat (lighting), James Ard (sound), and Ido Levran (video systems editor).

This is the first commissioned play for Woolly Mammoth Artistic Director Maria Manuela Goyanes. She admits to being surprised that her first such project would be livestreamed rather than performed on stage.

“Yet, to categorize this project as a piece of pandemic theatre feels incorrect,”she said. “The experience is intimate and still inherently theatrical. Amir has written a story specifically meant to be told through a video call, connecting form and content seamlessly.”

Director Odcikin says the team is committed to the play being a full production with full design. But it was very different from mounting a traditional stage production.

“The actors are cooking a traditional Palestinian dish live every night,” he said, “which brings its own set of logistics to coordinate. And it’s all doubly complicated by the fact that the team cannot enter the actors’ homes for load-in or tech, due to COVID restrictions.”

Was the directing process different?

“It’s all new and all the same,” Odcikin said. “The play is the play, actors are the actors, designers are designers, so our day-to-day work is similar.

“But the process through Zoom feels different. We can’t rehearse as many hours, as Zoom fatigue is real. And we’re stuck in our little squares, so I don’t have access to as much information from the actors as I try to guide the play’s tone.”

Although it’s a different way to think about the work, Odcikin is grateful to have an opportunity to continue to tell stories at this time.

Faragallah lives in New York, Sultani in Virginia, the stage manager in Washington, D.C., the dramaturg in Minneapolis, and the playwright is currently in Stockholm, Sweden.

“We’ve had our producers call in from London,” Odcikin said. “So, between all of us, the stage manager sends rehearsal times in six different time zones.”

The play runs 70 minutes with no intermission. There are no scheduled talkbacks following each performance, but all the participating companies are collaborating to create conversations and engagement activities hosted online during the run of the show. More information can be found at osfashland.org as events are confirmed.

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Associate Artistic Director Evren Odcikin makes his OSF directorial debut at the helm of “This Is Who I Am,” a livestreamed play by Amir Nizar Zuabi with performances scheduled from Dec. 5 through Jan. 3. Photo photo by Kim Budd, courtesy OSF