DPT’s ‘Noura’: Authentic and Penetrating Christmas story
DETROIT, MI–It’s very difficult to hang on and let go at the same time.
That is the idea that runs through Noura, a play by Michigan playwright Heather Raffo who also plays the title character, in the production currently running at The Detroit Public Theatre through December 18.
The play tells the story of Noura, a 40ish woman from Iraq who is living in New York City with her husband and son. Noura’s family is Chaldean–Aramaic-speaking, Eastern Rite Catholics. Chaldeans have been persecuted by the Islamic majority in Iraq for decades. Many have escaped to countries friendly to Christians, especially the U.S. where there are an estimated 500,000, clustered mostly in California, Arizona, Illinois and Michigan.
Noura is planning what she would like to be the perfect Christmas dinner to celebrate their new life in New York and the arrival of a young college-age woman she knows from Mosul where she was born and raised. Noura and her husband, Tareq (Mattico David) have been sponsoring Maryam (Amanda Najor) with money as she has navigated herself from the Catholic orphanage in Mosul through an attack by Islamic extremists and ultimately to California where she is a bright student.
The meeting between Maryam and Noura does not go as planned. Maryam has a surprise for Noura and Tareq, and it drives a wedge into the meeting. It is over this surprise and central conflict in the story where the theme of the power of shame comes in; the power of religion to divide families and ruin lives and relationships over the subjective definitions and perceptions of shame.
One of the real strengths of Raffo’s story and script is to illuminate some of the real-life experience of Iraqi refugees. Despite two wars the U.S. has waged against and inside Iraq, lives lost on both sides and a trillion or more dollars spent on those invasions and wars, the country and its people remain an abstract mystery for most Americans.
Raffo’s story does well to illuminate the realities: Tareq was a surgeon in Mosul, but he had to work at a Subway eatery when he arrived in NYC until he could get a certification to work in an NYC hospital ER; people who have emigrated to the U.S. as refugees still have family members stuck in the country enduring poverty and persecution; enduring Americans who shun them because they are Iraqi, all of whom are seen by too many Americans as Islamic extremists.
Noura is not easy, and her marriage is difficult. Her attachment to Mosul and what it was before the latest war is a force strong within her. She seems called to the past almost hourly. Meanwhile, Tareq reminds her that what they knew of Mosul is gone, and he is trying every day to chart a better life going forward without looking backward.
The allegory of Raffo’s story to The Christmas story is hard to miss. But that’s okay, given the season. It’s not ham-fisted. And it is probably useful to drive home some universal ideas and values, such as “welcome the stranger,” and “do not judge lest ye be judged.”
There is an authenticity in Noura that is penetrating–both in the writing and the acting. Here and there, one wonders if some of Noura’s dialogue isn’t just a bit stilted and lesson-ish. But Raffo has written all of her lines for the Noura character. She is, in fact, a very good writer of dialogue as the banter and speeches by the Tareq, family friend Rafa’a (Kal Naga) and son Yazen (Moogie Fawaz) is natural, authentic and believable.
The whole Christmas story in Noura is timely, provocative and penetrating. Highly recommended.