The well of creativity has not run dry for writer Mona Mansour. As a playwright, she’s more than ready for New York to see her work, The Vagrant Trilogy, a three-part tale that follows paths taken and forsaken by a Palestinian family amid crisis. It premiered in Washington DC at the Mosaic Theater in 2018 and was set to run at the Public Theater in 2020 when the pandemic shuddered it. Earlier this month it began previews (again at the Public Theater) but it was once again stalled due to Covid cases. It will officially open on Sunday May 8th.
On the West coast, Mansour opened another one of her plays earlier this month at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Unseen tells the story of an American photojournalist who wakes up in war-torn Syria and is forced to put the pieces together with her girlfriend and Californian mother. It will run through July. In March 2023, she’ll return to DC’s Mosaic theater, for Unseen‘s east coast engagement.
If that weren’t enough, she continues to lend her skill to television, contributing to episodes of the series New Amsterdam and working on projects for AMC International.
The American born playwright of Middle Eastern decent focuses much of her themes on Arab cultures and nations. It’s ironic for someone who began her writing career in comedy. Still, she’s able to find humor in the hurt.
“Manhattan Digest” recently met the award-winning scribe at the Public Theater after a rehearsal of The Vagrant Trilogy. There, she discussed the play, her writing style, and how comedy fits into her works.
MD: How much of that original production is the same as what you have now?
MM: If you had asked me two years ago, I probably would have said a great deal of it. I think that there is no way to describe it other than to say the budgets are completely different, so what we’re doing now matches the budget we’ve been given by the Public. The core of what we did at Mosaic is still here, but we’ve made a number of changes.
I’m lucky to work with Mark Wing-Davey, who was the chair of NYU Grad acting for years. His text work is just amazing, and he has no pretension. He’s all about the work and he’s been around this material through several iterations. It’s great to have that history with him. It’s also great to have Hadi Tabbal, who plays our leading man, Adham. He was also in the production we did at Mosaic.
MD: In terms of the academic and scholarly theme of the play, would you consider the writing itself to be academic? How far into academia does it go?
MM: The second play has the most of it. Adham is in the UK and he’s trying to become a professor. They don’t have the US equivalent of tenure there. You first become a reader and then you’re promoted to professor. It was interesting doing research for that because I always wanted to be in academia. I was always a “would be comparative literature” person, but I dodged that bullet because I heard horrible stories about people in that world who were left bitter if they didn’t get tenure or just stressed if they did get it. As theater workers, we tend to not think that other industries carry the same amount of hustling.
The middle play is certainly the one most centered on academia. At the end of the first play, you don’t know which way Adham’s life will go. The next two plays are akin to the movie Sliding Doors. There is one version of the play which depicts one life choice and another that depicts a completely opposite one. The cool part of the second play is that it’s set in London in 1982, so it is visually rich and almost too fun.
MD: Was the play based on your own father?
MM: Not necessarily, but I grew up around a lot of self-hating Arabs who were glad to be gone from Lebanon. That dynamic stayed with me. There’s a lot of pressure when people are sent off in the world in a post -colonial society and they are told to grab that brass ring and make it happen. The Lebanese Civil War ran from 1975-1990 so it wasn’t uncommon to have extended relatives staying with us. At the time, I didn’t process it but in retrospect, I gathered the information.
MD: Did you set out to write a trilogy or did it evolve into that?
MM: No. I just started with one, which was set in a refugee camp. Then I wrote the sequel, set in 1967. But then I had trouble trying to get Adham to go back home once the war broke out. In my mind, I questioned who goes home during a war? But some people do! Eventually, it just made sense to break up the stories into three parts.
MD: You were featured in a podcast in which you said that the days of improv writing at the Groundlings taught you how to write quickly. How did the experience of writing comedy shape your dramatic work?
MM: What I learned from that was a lack of preciousness, some of which may have been a little precious. For example, you may work on a scene with someone, record it (on a tape in those days), then present it to the group. Sometimes it would kill on a wed, but flop on a Sunday.
I think when people are going through stuff, either political or personal, that they must find the humor in it. It’s for survival. There is a memoir by the late Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti called I Saw Ramallah. When I was researching the plays, I called a history professor at Columbia University and asked what it was like to be a Palestinian living in the West Bank between 1948-1967. He turned me on to that book and when I read it, it was much like the story I’d conceived in the Trilogy. Barghouti was at University in Cairo when war broke in his homeland, and he couldn’t go home. There is a quote in that book when he writes, “Comedy and tragedy. We (Palestinians) are used to it in the same breath.” It’s not just Palestinians who experience that, but I kind of grew up with that same sentiment. I’d see people laugh about dark things. It’s a strange quality, but there is something to finding the absurdity in all of it.
MD: Is there a line too far that can be crossed with comedy?
MM: With stand-up, comedians are really looking for the hot button reaction and instigate. With theater-and in many ways of life, I think that people find ways to survive in the direst of circumstances. Sometimes that includes crude humor.
MD: You’ve also said that you want to create Arabic characters who are fallible. Do you think by doing that that you perpetuate stereotypes, or do you do it because it’s your own experience and/or it’s what you think would be the experience of people in your community?
MM: To me, if you’re writing complicated people, then it’s not a stereotype—at least I’m hoping that they are complicated in their fallibility. For awhile there were two sides of the coin for an Arab or Middle-Eastern actor: angry terrorists or good Imam. There’s a lot of stuff in the juicy middle where the fallibility comes in. It’s what O’Neill was trying to do in Long Day’s Journey Into Night or what Arthur Miller did in Death of a Salesman. But that’s what I want to do- create characters that people find find infuriating but who also cannot be pinpointed. Also, I can’t control what an audience sees in my work. My hope is that people will love the characters and be able to see themselves in some of them and in their stories. The best thing that could happen is if people are still thinking about it two days after they see it. I try not to be too prescriptive about what I want people to think. If you’re engaged with the characters or your wrestling with them, I like to disrupt what you thought you knew before you see the play, in ways conscious and unconscious. That’s where the poetry of the writing comes in. A collection of words can just hit you in an unexpected way. I love seeing theater like that and I love writing theater like that.
MD: Now for a loaded question: Do you think it’s possible to be simultaneously Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestine?
MM: I hesitate to answer questions like that because anything I put out to the world like that might deter someone from coming to see the show. It would be a tricky dance to be both, but I do think it’s possible to be pro-human. If you say you are partial to a particular government however, it is quite difficult.
The Vagrant Trilogy is now playing Off Broadway at the Public Theater through May 15th. (425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, NYC). For tickets and information, click here.