At a recent Boston University conference titled “The Role of the University in the Crisis of Forced Displacement,” Nicole Rizzo directed a staged reading of Syrian playwright-filmmaker Liwaa Yazji’s Question and Question, a work based on Yazji’s interviews with displaced Syrian women:
By Nicole Rizzo
On September 27, 2019, Boston University’s Kilachand Honors College hosted a staged reading of Liwaa Yazji’s Question and Question, translated to English by Clem Naylor.
In this play, three Syrian women in three different countries (Lebanon, France, and Syria) are interrogated by seemingly interchangeable “questioner figures.” Throughout the questions and answers, the audience learns about the traumatic lived experiences of Nouf, Hind, and Talar.
Nouf, searching for her husband who fled to seek refuge from ISIS, challenges French investigators who refuse to listen and recognize her humanity. Hind, a survivor of sexual assault and human trafficking, wants to find her daughter and reveals the violence of having to disclose personal trauma in order to have her information recorded in a file – a file that treats women as objects instead of people, and is in an undisclosed location in Beirut. Talar, an internally displaced Syrian activist and survivor of sexual assault, refuses to be objectified by the gaze of medical doctors while describing a life-changing decision. She fought to provide aid for those suffering in the unforgiving conditions refugees continue to face today.
By the end of the performance, the three women — who do not actually speak to each other but seem to be in conversation — leave the interrogation chairs empty. The chilling final line, announced by ambiguous voices, to “bring in the next ones” reminds the audience that the crisis of forced displacement is still ongoing.
At the conference
The staged reading was part of a larger conference on “The Role of the University in the Crisis of Forced Displacement: Ethics, Innovation, & Immersive Learning.” When Professor Preston, Director of Kilachand Honors College, first introduced me to Yazji’s Question and Question, I was struck by the powerful way in which Yazji gives voice to the experiences of Syrian refugee women. The “question and answer” paradigm established by the form — dialogue interspersed with longer monologues — was a useful way of structuring its confessional storytelling style. It’s also a way that offers the characters an opportunity to voice their experiences of forced displacement and sexual trauma without the danger of sensationalism or romanticizing assault that a staging of sexual violence poses. Yazji keeps the violence within the gut-wrenching stories, but it occurs off-stage.
By voicing their stories within interrogation sequences, Yazji’s refugee women expose the violence of bureaucratic and xenophobic questions as part of what contributes to their trauma. With the staging of this play, I hoped to engage Yazji’s motifs of liminality by making the performance space a liminal one. Yazji’s characters are displaced, traveling, searching, and in spaces that are otherwise in-between. Such spaces offer, among other things, the potential for change.
In order to create a kind of liminal performance space, I wanted to disrupt the passive, unproductive empathy that brings about catharsis (or, according to Aristotle, “the purging of pity and fear”) that scholars such as Augusto Boal have argued result in a reinforcing of the status quo by not encouraging audiences to take action.
One of the dangers of progressive theatre that worries many artist-scholars such as Professor Preston is the issue of audiences going to a “challenging play,” patting themselves on the back with a congratulatory, “Ah, I did something productive today,” and then leaving the theatre without a second thought. To trouble this type of response, I decided to incorporate the audience within the staged reading and blur the lines between performers and participants.
Yazji’s text, in Clem Naylor’s translation, offers casting guidance for a five-person ensemble. According to the paratext, two actors can portray the “questioner role” by taking on the personas of doctors, asylum officers, charity employees, investigators, presenters, and ambiguous voices. I reserved seats within the audience (in the fourth row) for the two questioners. They performed many of their lines standing in front of their chairs within the audience. From the very first line of the play, when one of the questioners stands and says, “How are you today?,” the audience is reminded that they are watching a play. When the audience is seated in the same position as the questioners, they cease to be passive bystanders and instead are called to participate, to be complicit with the bureaucracy and xenophobia of the questions/ers.
Although this type of alienating technique is nothing new (Bertolt Brecht wrote about the alienation effect almost 100 years ago), I think it is especially important to underscore how we as citizens of the United States, a country that currently bans Syrian people from entry, are complicit in the xenophobic and militaristic regime of forced displacement. I wanted the audience to sit with that kind of discomfort. I hoped that through disrupting the unproductive empathy that audiences may develop by identifying with/living vicariously through the three Syrian women, they may engage in a more productive form of critical empathy that views the questioners as violent and encourages audiences to care about the women, to want to do something about the human rights violations they experience. When I learned that Yazji interviewed refugees for Question and Question, I believed their stories could engage audiences to inspire a call to action.
Chaos and disorientation
Along with the liminal performance space, I wanted the audience to see visual manifestations of the chaos and disorienting fragmentation that trauma generates, specifically the traumas of war and sexual violence. For this reason, I decided to have the three Syrian women who are in three different countries (France, Lebanon, and Syria) wear colors of the Syrian flag to symbolically gesture toward the violent fragmentation of forced displacement. We decided to have paper spread across the entire conference room. Not only does the mass of scattered papers create an effect of disorientation or chaos that mirrors the trauma of war, but it also speaks to the violence of bureaucracy that prevents many individuals from receiving asylum, contacting their children, or finding their spouses.
Yazji’s play jumps from one temporal and spatial location to another in unpredictable ways and calls to mind the way Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder functions as a series of unpredictable, psychic intrusions. In this way, Yazji’s play gives audiences access to some of the many aftereffects of trauma. Yazji also presents three complex Syrian women who have experienced various traumas and destabilizes the colonialist/Orientalist notion of the “Middle Eastern Woman” as a monolith, in that each woman responds to various traumas differently.
One of my first concerns when undertaking this project was whether or not it was right for me, a White American woman, to direct this play about Syrian refugee women. The actors and I all discussed the complexity of playing characters whose life experiences and positions are different from our own. Might we be taking advantage of the suffering of Syrian women by benefiting from getting lines on our resumes or directing and acting credits? And yet, doesn’t theater always ask us to get near to characters who are not like us? I have always believed that is part of the power of theater; yet it felt more complicated when the crisis was contemporary and the theater world has been debating the ethics of when White actors should or shouldn’t play characters of color, able-bodied actors play characters with disabilities, and cisgender actors play transgender characters. And yet a requirement that only Syrian refugee women could play those roles would mean that we could not share Yazji’s provocative play.
I chose the staged reading/workshop format to make it clear that we were thoughtfully engaging with these questions and the issues of appropriation or the idea of speaking for individuals whose life experiences and positionalities are different from our own. I cannot claim to know the vast array of experiences of Syrian refugee women. With the staged reading format, I wanted to create some distance between the actors (who were not Syrian refugees) and the characters. That way, the actors would not be fully embodying these characters. I hoped to invite audiences to be part of the workshop and to encourage them to be critically engaged.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of a larger conversation about the role of the university in the crisis of forced displacement. I want to thank Liwaa Yazji for all of her guidance and support as I asked her about staging this powerful play and for her presence, by Skype, at the talkback that followed the performance. I look forward to continuing this conversation outside of Boston University, where I hope we can ask questions that are different and more productive than the questions and questions quoted in the play.
A recent graduate of Boston University, Nicole Rizzo received her B.A. in English with a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She was also a student in the Kilachand Honors College. For her senior Kilachand Keystone Project, she wrote, directed, and worked with an interdisciplinary team to produce a play on the diverse psychological ramifications of sexual trauma, particularly on college campuses. She is especially interested in the intersection of social activism and art and how interdisciplinary collaboration can be intellectually fruitful and generate discourse and action around social justice issues.
See pages 34-37, 46-37 in Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. Translated by Charles A. Leal McBride and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride, Theatre Communications Group, 2014.
See Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review, no. 30, Autumn 1988, pp. 61-88. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1395054. Accessed 4 November 2019.”
With Anne-Marie McManus: Teaching Syrian Stories: Between Understanding and Empathy