The issue with Zoom theatre is that, oftentimes, the two do not comply: theatrical performance is not built for digital platforms; digitization is not designed for dramatics. Many theatre companies—forced to rely on digital platforms, doing their best in the midst of the pandemic’s cultural desert—have struggled with this inevitability, adapting non-cinematic stage works for the screen. Typically, it doesn’t work well, even produced and performed by the most talented artists around.
This artistic hardship makes Amir Nizar Zuabi’s This is Who I Am unbelievably refreshing. Presented by regional theatrical giants—a collaboration between PlayCo, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, the Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival—Zuabi’s work is an intimate portrait of family, of cultural and generational gaps, of the overcoming of barriers with stubborn love and culinary delights. Following an estranged father and son cooking a beloved family dish over Zoom, Zuabi’s play feels nothing like a pandemic adaptation. It feels real, grounded, messy, and moving in all the right ways.
Zuabi and director Evren Odcikin have created a play of universality. They have crafted a piece that is as much about the fermentation of memory as it is about the fermentation of yeast in fteer. As father and son cook live within the stream, they balance tenderness and guilt, love and fear, humor and heartbreak in a way that makes your heartache, your lips pull, and your tear ducts swell. It is a story of two people who love each other with all they have to give, yet cannot bridge the past of blame, hatred, and shame. It is a story of the complicated dynamic between parent and child—more than that, the dynamic between father and son—and of the tension caused by generational divide. In short, it’s something we can all visualize ourselves in. Have we not all held pain and guilt? Have we not all found ourselves regretting a decision, blaming another? Have we not all loved another more than ourselves, and found that the cuts strike deepest from them?
Ramsey Faragallah (Father) and Yousof Sultani (Son) explore these questions with vigor and ease. They allow themselves to be messy: their witty banter is underscored with the pain of loss; their snappish accusations are colored with undeniable love. They are human, simply existing in this call with their loved one, neither forcing cinema nor exaggerating drama. They are real. Faragallah is grounded, whole, playing storyteller to his son’s straight-shooter. He holds space with confidence and comfort, making his breaking points a punch to the gut: it’s as if seeing your own father cry, de-aging, for a brief moment, to a hurting child. Sultani is the perfect juxtaposition: he is blunt, quick-footed, and quick-witted, the progress to his father’s tradition. His protective barriers are made of iron and cemented to the earth, making the floodgates ever more breathtaking when they open. Faragallah and Sultani are two of the most easeful, intentional actors I’ve ever seen, and their work turns this piece into near-perfection.
Also deserving of a mention: the stage and costume design of this livestream (by Mariana Sanchez and Dina El-Aziz, respectively) is marvelous. As soon as the screens click on, we see the oceans that separate father and son. Father, in Ramallah, sits in a homely, cluttered kitchen, drinking from an antique mug and dressed in a rolled-sleeve Henley; Son, in New York City, cooks in a pristine white kitchen, drinks from a Hydroflask-looking bottle, and dons a backward cap. The two are the epitome of traditional and progressive. They are each other’s FOILs in every way except their shared memories, shared pain, and shared love. The differences make the similarities all the sweeter.
This script, this performance, has quickly entered into my list of favorite plays I’ve seen. It is poignant and imperfect, evocative of humanity’s complexity in the simplest of things. At the core of This is Who I Am, it is merely a conversation between a father and son living on two different continents, yet it provokes and explores questions of belonging, family, guilt, love, and loss more than the deepest tragedy may. I laughed, I teared up, my peripheral vision blurred from how incredibly invested I became in the story of these two men. In short, this performance reminded me why I love the theatre. It reminds its audience every night of the power and connectivity of art. More than that, This is Who I Am reminds its audience to be human: to love, to lose, to fight, to forgive.
After all, as the son so rightly proclaims as their fteer bakes in the oven, “It’s nice that we can smell the same.”
Written by Amir Nizar Zuabi, directed by Evren Odcikin, and starring Ramsey Faragallah and Yousof Sultani, This is Who I Am runs through January 3rd, 2021. For tickets, click here.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.