Arab women assess life in Magic's compelling 'Black Eyed'
By Chad Jones, STAFF WRITER Inside Bay Area


THREE Arab women find themselves in what they think is heaven, though it could be purgatory. It could even be hell.

They stand before the Gate of the Martyrs' Door, and they want to go in to see their loved ones. Delilah, of Biblical fame, wants to see Samson. Tamam, who lived during the Crusades, wants to see her brother.
And the Architect, an unnamed woman from our own time, wants to see a man with whom she had a fleeting but important connection. 

The women are afraid to go in, and their guide, Aiesha, provides no comfort, only tough talk and attitude. 

Will the women go through the door? 
That's the essential plot of Betty Shamieh's "Th Black Eyed," the second installment of the Magic Theatre's Hot House festival of world-premiere plays.

After the opening of "The Rules of Charity" a few weeks ago and with Saturday's opening of "The Black Eyed," this year's Hot House is two for two. There's only one more play to open ˜ Victor Lodato's "3F, 4F"
˜ so the pressure's on to be as surprising as "Rules" or as thought-provoking as "The Black Eyed." 
From its first words ˜ "Unanswered questions.

Unquestioned answers. I do someone good dead. I do someone dead good" ˜ Shamieh's play grabs you by the brain and won't let go. 
There's a fluid, poetic quality to the writing that director Jessica Heidt matches in the smoothly flowing, 90-minute production. The four women in the cast ˜ Nora El Samahy, Sofia Ahmad, Bridgette Loriaux
and Atosa Babaoff ˜ take turns being characters and chorus. 
Outfitted in Callie Floor's vivid, flowing costumes, the women move with purpose through Kris Stone's spare
set, which is dominated by a bridge-like structure at the rear of the space. Stacks of documents and loose
pages litter the stage and catch Chris Studley's painterly lights. 

Themes of violence run through all the women's stories, and much of Shamieh's drama concentrates on
conflicting views of violence. Is a suicide bombing cowardice or courage? How do you survive a world in which violence rules without becoming violent yourself ?

There aren't any easy answers in Shamieh's play, but her questions are provocative. 
Of the women's stories, only Delilah's fails to make a strong impression. Hers is a tale of survival in a
man's world by using her feminine wiles. After she helps kill Samson, she says, "I wished your God could
have kept you safe from she who loved you, but still wished you dead." 

Tamam's story is more compelling because she relates a theory that oppression is like a coin maker: "You put in human beings, press the right buttons and watch them get squeezed, shrunk, flattened till they take
the slim shape of a two-faced coin. One side is a martyr, the other a traitor. All the possibilities of a life get reduced to those paltry two." 

She is the victim of terrible violence, yet somehow maintains a faith in humanity. "I want to feel sorrow when anyone is suffering, no matter who they are or what their people have done to mine, no one's life should be snuffed out. I am the kind of human being who refuses to get high on the drug of hate. In my opinion, that's the only kind of human being there is." 
The Architect, a Palestinian woman living in the United States, confronts the issue of terrorism, but not exactly head on. She weaves an incredible fantasy life for herself that ends in a surprisingly real place. 
The performances are all strong in "The Black Eyed."

This is difficult, non-linear material, and the actresses all handle it with a combination of grace and forceful personality. There are all kinds of complexities involved in these women's stories that go back for centuries, and in both Shamieh's writing and the performances, those knotted depths are powerfully apparent. 

The only hitch in the play is that because of the narrative, which flows from the abstract to the specific, we lose some emotional connection with the women, so we experience "The Black Eyed" more in our heads than in our hearts.