Saturday, March 14, 2009

This Show Cooks

Don't fear The Arab-Israeli Cookbook, the current production of Theatre Mir, which is playing at the city of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Storefront Theatre downtown (it's across the street from the Chicago Cultural Center). Don't be afraid of being hit with some difficult to digest (no pun intended, really) political discourse. Don't be afraid of shouting or ranting or yet another take on a dispute that seems cannot ever be resolved.

Do go there and go into it expecting to hear the real stories of real people who live in the Middle East -- Arabs, Israelis, Christians -- and how they go about their everyday lives, amid suicide bombings, humiliating checkpoints, being cut off from their families and their traditions, being targeted by those who want to kill them for no good reason, but also as they cook, eat, dine together and discuss their dreams and what they hope for their futures.

Food is at the center of this production. Like the director said after one of the shows last week (the one I went to, on Thursday), the playwright cold not just go to Israel and say, "Hey, tell me about your life," but he could ask them to talk about a meaningful dish and prepare that dish then, in the course (no pun intended, again) of preparing that food, they would open up and discuss their lives and how they live despite their uncertain futures. This tool works both ways, actually. I think it might be a tough sell to a lot of people to tell them, "OK, we want you to watch this play where people portraying these interviewees talk about life in the Middle East," but when you say, "You're going to hear and see people preparing the foods that are meaningful to them, and they'll also give you a glimpse of what it's really like to live there," the potential audience becomes more intrigued.

There are a few moments that are tough to watch, but powerful, as well, such as when an older woman talks about shopping at a grocery store and she sees Arab flower sellers outside beforehand and those young women turn out to be suicide bombers or when an Arab cook and cafe owner sees that he will not be able to pass on the 1,200-year-old tradition of what he cooks and the place he runs, to his children, because the checkpoints have killed his business. Or the Israeli bus driver who drives a bus on a route that is the most popular for suicide bombers.

It's not all bombings and that, there are some lighter moments, as well, so when you and yours discuss the show afterward, you'll be able to laugh at one or two things. Oh, and the food smells great. Unfortunately, the audience doesn't get to taste any of it.

One of the best things about the show, though, is that there is no "big" ending. The show doesn't pretend to have the answers that would end this situation. There is merely a hope, expressed by an elderly woman, for peace. Beyond that, everything else is open to discussion.

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