by Martin Denton · April 2, 2004
For a variety of reasons, it takes a while to realize that the protagonist of Betty Shamieh's compelling new play Roar is Irene, the 15-year-old daughter of Palestinian immigrants living in Detroit. At first, we think the play is about Irene's parents, Ahmed and Karema, who are enormously interesting. They run Ahmed's Snacks & Liquor, which is located at street
level, below their small apartment; Ahmed, a musician stuck in a life he deplores, dreams of returning to the Middle East (to Jordan), while Karema, aggressively pragmatic (and passive-aggressive vis-à-vis her husband) keeps the shop and the family on the tightest of leashes while hoarding savings and overseeing a miniature empire of apartments (apparently nicer than the one they live in) which are held as rental properties.
Shortly after Roar begins, we meet Karema's sister, Hala, who is so intriguing that for a while we think the play is going to be about her. She functions, instead, as catalyst for most of the action; Shamieh acknowledges a debt to A Streetcar Named Desire here, fashioning a character of limitless charm at the end of her rope. Hala has arrived in the United States
after being thrown out of Kuwait, where she was living the high life as mistress to a rich Arab; but the Gulf War (the first one˜Roar takes place in 1991) has made that career choice impossible, so she shows up on Karema's doorstep with a plan to bounce back that involves maneuvering her way into the good graces of Ahmed's brother, Abe. Abe had wanted to marry Hala before they all emigrated to the U.S., sometime after the Six Day War. But her sour treatment of him then may make it difficult for him to take her back now.
Did I mention that Karema hates Abe, because˜in order to achieve his first professional success in the United States˜he allowed business colleagues to think he was Jewish instead of Palestinian? I should add, by the way, that Abe and Ahmed are (very liberal) Muslims, while Karema and Hala are Christians. Shamieh's set-up here is rich in detail and conflict; she reels us in as she spins out the histories, feelings, and objectives of her characters, all the while supplying the important and necessary subtext of their other-ness in America: we never forget that they never forget that, as first-generation settlers from Palestine, they have yet to meld into our great melting pot.
So Roar tells a familiar tale of immigration; one that, with a few tweaks here or there, applies to most of our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents˜after all, were the Chinese or Jews
or Italians or Dominicans or just about anybody else welcomed with open arms into this country? The problems faced by Karema and Ahmed and Abe˜of prejudice, of assimilation, of giving up little pieces of yourself and your history in order to build a new life˜are universal; Shamieh knows this, even as she makes them very specific and very particular in her play. One of the things most valuable about Roar is that it reminds us that there's always a new wave of refugees seeking sanctuary on our shores.
Which brings me to Irene, the more-or-less typical American teenager: born in Detroit, she speaks unaccented English, embraces popular music, squabbles with her parents, finds excuses to cut school. Hala's sudden appearance, all by itself, makes Irene start to
confront the ways that she's not a typical American, and the chain of events that Hala's visit sparks pushes Irene rapidly toward adulthood. The older generation will never stop being immigrants, but Irene is going to grow up American; the question is, how much of her forbears˜how much of the Palestinian˜will live on in the woman that Irene becomes.
Roar is filled with warmth and humor and involving conflict; it's a fine play, and director Marion
McClinton has given it a thoughtful if somewhat formulaic staging. The cast is excellent: Annabella Sciorra is radiant and commanding as Hala, Joseph Kamal makes an intelligent and sympathetic Ahmed, Sarita Choudhury is just as appealing as Karema, despite the character's manipulativeness, and Daniel Oreskes, appearing in just one scene as Abe, is wryly human and humane. Anchoring the play superbly is young actress Sherri Eldin as Irene; who manages her transformation into young womanhood with grace and subtlety.