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‘Noura’ provides a window into Iraqi trauma; Mark Morris’ ‘Pepperland’ at Northrop

ALSO: “Love & Law: A Century of the ACLU” at the Dakota; Lyra Baroque: “Passaggi” in Rochester at at Hamline; and more.

The cast in the Guthrie Theater’s production of "Noura."
The cast in the Guthrie Theater’s production of "Noura."
Photo by Dan Norman

As the Guthrie’s thrust stage prepares for “Twelfth Night,” which opens in February with an all-local cast, the rest of the theater is celebrating Arab artistry. It’s a unique opportunity for all of us: a rare chance, if you’re Arab in the Twin Cities, to see someone like you on stage, and if you’re not, to feel like a foreigner and learn more about other peoples and cultures.

On the proscenium stage, Heather Raffo’s “Noura” takes us into the New York apartment of Iraqi immigrants who have finally – after eight years of anxious waiting – become American citizens. Their new lives can officially begin, but Noura (Gamze Ceylan) can’t let go of her old life in Mosul, an ancient city destroyed by ISIS where Christians, Muslims and Jews once lived side by side.

Raffo, whose mother is American and father is Iraqi, wrote “Noura” after leading a series of workshops with Arab-American women about Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” You can, if you want, see Noura as Nora and her husband Tareq (Fajer Kaisi) as Torvald – and yes, both plays take place on Christmas Eve – but connecting those dots is not at all key to appreciating this potent story.

It’s a tale of passionate love and profound loss, long-held secrets revealed, and people trying to live with a semblance of normalcy. And you can’t help but think that Noura and Tareq, their son Yazen (a role that alternates between Aarya Batchu and Akshay Krishna), their Muslim friend Rafa’a (Egyptian film and TV star Kal Naga), and Maryam (Layan Elwazani), a young Iraqi woman Noura and Tareq have been sponsoring, are the lucky ones. They’re not in camps, in cages, on the run, in ships crowded with refugees. They have futures. They also have been traumatized in ways those of us who haven’t been forced to flee our homes and homelands can’t possibly grasp. “Noura” is a window into that experience.

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We saw “Noura” on opening weekend. Screens on each side of the stage displayed Arabic surtitles. During the post-play discussion, which a lot of people stayed for, we learned that the entire play had been translated for the surtitles. That the three people we squeezed past to get to our seats were Iraqi (and big fans of Naga). That many in the audience were Iraqi. “I had chills throughout this play,” one said. “It was a lot of emotion.” Another mentioned “being arbitrarily put in a place you never heard of, like Minnesota.” And unable to return home. What’s inconceivable to most Minnesotans is just another day for millions of people around the world.

Fajer Kaisi and Gamze Ceylan in "Noura."
Photo by Dan Norman
Fajer Kaisi and Gamze Ceylan in "Noura."
“Noura” continues through Feb. 16. FMI and tickets (start at $25). Post-play discussions will be held Feb. 1, Feb. 9 and Feb. 15, all after the 1 p.m. performances. (Note: The Arabic surtitles were limited to Jan. 17, 19 and 21.)

The Guthrie’s Arab Artistry series will continue with Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “Grey Rock,” a play set in present-day Palestine, and Hanane Hajj Ali’s “Jogging,” set in present-day Beirut. “Grey Rock” runs Jan. 23-26, “Jogging” Jan. 29-Feb. 2, both in the Dowling Studio. “Jogging” will be performed in Arabic with English surtitles, which is not something we see around here every day. Tickets start at $9 for select performances; all other performances range from $25-32.

On Sunday afternoon, Jan. 26, the Guthrie will host “In Conversation: Celebrating Arab Artistry,” a panel with the Guthrie’s Artistic Director Joseph Haj (himself the son of Palestinian immigrants), Heather Raffo (“Noura”), Hanane Hajj Ali (“Jogging”), Amir Nizar Zuabi (“Grey Rock”), and Kathryn Haddad, artistic and executive director of New Arab American Theater Works and writer of “Zafira and the Resistance,” seen at the Guthrie last fall. The panel will be moderated by Taous Claire Khazem, assistant director for “Noura.” 3:30 p.m. FMI. Free, but reservations are required.

The picks

Tonight (Thursday, Jan. 23) through Sunday at Open Eye Theatre: “How the Wild West Was Spun.” Starting in the 1880s, Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling pageant “The Wild West: A History Lesson,” toured widely in the U.S. and later in Europe. It attracted millions of people and had a lasting effect on our perceptions of history. Internationally acclaimed Native storyteller Dovie Thomas brings 50 years of historical research to her version, an epic tale that deconstructs Buffalo Bill’s version and challenges its settler colonial perspective. Kevin Kling will host, and all performances will include a Q&A after with Dovie and Kling. This will be the American premiere. 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Friday, 4 p.m. Sunday. FMI and tickets ($22/15).

Multi-instrumentalist Douglas R. Ewart will be interview Friday afternoon at the East Side Freedom Library.
Courtesy of the East Side Freedom Library
Multi-instrumentalist Douglas R. Ewart will be interview Friday afternoon at the East Side Freedom Library.
Friday afternoon at the East Side Freedom Library: A Conversation with Musician/Composer Douglas R. Ewart. Multi-instrumentalist and maker of jazz, aka creative music, aka black classical music, Ewart has been a positive force on the Twin Cities and Chicago music scenes for decades. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since its early days, and a mentor to many musicians, Ewart will be interviewed by Peter Rachleff, historian and ESFL founding co-executive director. 3-4:30 p.m. Free and open to the public. The interview – the first in a planned series of interviews with musicians – will be live-streamed on Facebook and archived on ESFL’s YouTube channel.

Friday and Saturday: Lyra Baroque: “Passaggi.” Have you heard of the cornetto? It’s an early wind instrument that looks a bit like an eel, depending on how many curves it has. Bruce Dickey is a modern-day master of the cornetto and especially something called “passaggi” – improvised embellishments or flourishes found in 16th-century music. Here’s a video of Dickey playing some Palestrina. If you enjoy early music and unusual instruments, you may feel like a fish on a hook when you hear this. Dickey will join a group of musicians from Lyra Baroque Orchestra for two concerts this weekend: the first on Friday at Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Rochester, the second on Saturday at Hamline’s Sundin Hall. 7:30 both nights. FMI and tickets ($30/25/5). Pre-concert talks at 6:30 p.m.

“Pepperland” is a vivid and joyous evening-length work that bounces off the Beatles without imitating them.
Photo by Gareth Jones
“Pepperland” is a vivid and joyous evening-length work that bounces off the Beatles without imitating them.
Saturday at Northrop: Mark Morris Dance Group: “Pepperland.” In 2017, one of our most acclaimed choreographers, MacArthur “genius” Mark Morris, was asked by the City of Liverpool to make a new dance for a special occasion: the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Morris always performs to live music – he won’t have it any other way – so he asked his former music director, Ethan Iverson, to compose an original score. Iverson, a co-founder of the jazz power trio the Bad Plus, was about to go out on his own and took up the challenge. The results: “Pepperland,” a vivid and joyous evening-length work that bounces off the Beatles without imitating them. And the band includes a thereminist. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($29-66). Iverson will be featured in a free performance preview in the Best Buy Theater at 6:15 p.m.

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Tuesday at the Dakota: “Love & Law: A Century of the ACLU.” To mark its 100th anniversary, the ACLU invited more than 40 writers – including Louise Erdrich, Brenda Child, Marlon James, Ann Patchett, Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon, Salmon Rushdie, David Eggers, Ann Patchett, Scott Turow, Jennifer Egan and Anthony Doerr – to reflect on landmark ACLU cases. Edited by Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, “Fight of the Century” came out on Jan. 21. Hosted by Birchbark Books and the ACLU MN, this all-star book launch and party will feature readings and performances by Erdrich and Child, T. Mychael Rambo, Dan Chouinard, Kao Kalia Yang, Bradley Greenwald, Prudence Johnson and Chastity Brown. Each guest will get a copy of the book. 7 p.m. FMI and tickets ($100).