CHOCOLATE IN HEAT
reviewed by Tim Cusack
Chocolate. Shoes. Breasts. Sand. Out of these elements Betty Shamieh weaves her multi-layered prose poem of one Palestinian girl growing up poor in Spanish Harlem. But the scope of her vision encompasses the privileged children of the white ruling class, African-American dance instructors, Jordanian princes and Latina prostitutes. Structured as three monologues performed by Shamieh alternating with two others performed by the amazing Piter Fatouche, the fragments of her narrative slowly assemble themselves into the story of a smart, driven, college-aged woman’s Pyrrhic victory over the rich boy who sexually assaults her on a beach—and the steps over her lifetime that lead to that beach and her ankles jammed up over her ears. Described in the Fringe Guide as an "irreverent solo...about...the problems of growing up in between two cultures," the piece is neither irreverent nor a solo, as Shamieh pushes past a simple articulation of her outsider-ness to engage in a rigorous interrogation of the ways in which barriers of class, race, gender, language and politics intersect to create so much misery both here and in the Middle East.
Starting with the night a very drunken Aiesha stabs the scion of a wealthy family (and her classmate at the elite college she attends) in the eye with her red stiletto as he tries to rape her, Shamieh reverses the flow of her heroine’s history, bringing us next the teenage Aiesha’s complicated relationship with her middle-aged dance mentor, Red, and then finally her childhood self’s fruitless gesture of rage against the neighborhood shopkeeper who violates her innocence. Although just how innocent Aiesha is, or to put it another way how complicit she is, in any of these encounters is left uncomfortably unresolved. This is to Shamieh’s credit, as is her determination to show her character always fighting back against the men who try to colonize her body, either physically or emotionally. The irony is that every time she fights back, she harms herself as much as them in the process, or perhaps worse still, the man in question isn’t even aware that she’s resisted. The result is a woman who is on the edge of becoming unhinged because of a world determined to marginalize her at every turn.
Interspersed with Aiesha’s first-person accounts are two outside witnesses to her story: the king’s son who attends the same American university as this daughter of peasants and whose own Palestinian mother may or may not have been assassinated by his father; and the shopkeeper’s nephew who is writing a book on women’s oppression at the hands of men and who hires prostitutes to tell him the gory details of the frontline battles in the war between the sexes. Fatouche magically embodies all of these characters, equally believable as both the heir to the Jordanian throne and, hilariously, as Liza, the prostitute who wants to write a book about men, which will consist in its entirety of the single word "bastard" printed on every page.
Racially, her characters inhabit an indeterminate place in the ethnic pecking order of America. Called "sand nigger" by whites and "towel heads" by blacks, these Arabs are not above playing the race card themselves when push comes to shove. Aiesha insults her black teacher’s lack of education, and the author of the book about women’s oppression has an almost pathological need to psychologically dominate and control the Latina working girls whom he interviews.
What turns up the heat on these political ideas is that Shamieh fuels them with the passions, needs and vulnerabilities of her characters. Prejudice and oppression are manifest in the ugly things otherwise fine people do to each other. Like melted chocolate scorched from exposure to too much heat, her characters’ basic sweetness has turned acrid from the cruelties of the world. For these people, chocolate is not just a description of their skin tone. The substance itself becomes in their hands a tool of seduction; a token of romantic love; a forbidden desire; a sweet reward; an instrument of revenge—and a symbol of the innocence they’ve stripped from each other.