Whether it's the careers in music that four out of the five characters pursued, or want to pursue, in the story or the inherent music of the richly textured dialogue, "Roar" sings with life and captures both the universal immigrant the specific Arab-American experience.
Award winning Palestinian-American playwright/actor Betty Shamieh adroitly and movingly tells a political story that is more about love, ambition, self-expression and assimilation as viewed through the lives of Arab-American immigrants and their American born daughter.
We meet the Yacoub family living in Detroit in the wake of the first Gulf War. Karema (Sarita Choudhury) and her husband Ahmed (Joseph Kamal), a former renowned Jordanian musician, have built a financially successful life for themselves and are owners of both a liquor store and apartment buildings, though you wouldn't know it from the plastic covered furniture and bare radiator in their own apartment. They've paid a heavy price for the economic security they've achieved, however. There is an obvious strain in Karema's relationship with Ahmed and in both parents' relationship with their daughter Irene (Sherri Eldin), at the core of which is their self identity and to what extent, or even if, the family should acknowledge their Palestinian roots.
Karema believes that Americans wouldn't rent apartments if they knew the owners were Arab so she makes her husband pretend to be the superintendent. Irene, who wants to be a blues singer, has no interest in her Palestinian roots or Arabic language ("it sounds like spitting") while her father Ahmed, in an attempt to help his daughter launch her career, bills her as Egyptian. "A blues singer with roots in the continent of Africa is an easy package to sell. Who in America ever heard of a Palestinian blues singer?" Even Ahmed's brother, Abe (Daniel Oreskes), who has become a prosperous music producer, portrays himself as an Egyptian Jew, a mistake that went uncorrected at the time he applied for his first job and said he had come to the U.S. from Egypt (meaning by way of) and his prospective employer replied, "There were lots of Jews living in Egypt before the war."
The precarious balance of the Yacoub family's life is suddenly shattered when Karema's sister Hala (Annabella Sciorra), a dynamic woman with a checkered past, arrives on their doorstep after being thrown out of Kuwait when it is invaded by Iraq. Having a Palestinian lover "was considered unpatriotic," Hala remarks about her former Kuwaiti protector. Fallen on tough times and with no place left to go, Hala, a singer and musician herself, has hopes of rekindling the relationship she once had with Ahmed's brother, Abe. In fact, as the family secrets start to spill out upon her arrival, we learn that the brothers had actually tossed a coin over which sister to pursue, "The Hurricane or the Silent Storm," and their choices may not have been the wisest.
With Hala in their midst, Karema and Ahmed find it harder to stifle their Palestinian memories and roots. Initially this means Karema encouraging her sister to teach Irene to play the lute and sing some Arabic songs and Ahmed turning more openly to playing his homeland's music. Despite herself, Irene feels a rapport with her aunt and the music she plays and sings as both understand sometimes you hear a human voice which so moves you that you'd give anything to hear the sound again. The voice in you first hums, sings and finally roars.
Then the darker side of Hala and Karema's Palestinian experiences start to emerge. Both grew up in a Jordanian refugee camp where their father was a revolutionary idealist, which had particularly severe consequences for them during the 1970 Black September Palestinian uprising and subsequent suppression. Karema was eventually able to flee to the U.S. when she married Ahmed, and Hala was left behind.
But did Karema really find freedom in her new life running a business that always demands her presence and suppressing her Palestinian roots, or did she create a sort of special prison of her own? Ms. Choudhury and Ms. Sciorra flawlessly capture the complex dynamics of these sisters in everything they say and don't say to each other, reminiscent of two other well crafted sisters found in Tennessee William's "Streetcar Named Desire."
Every action in this beautifully written and directed play by Marion McClinton sparks new questions and no easy answers. The set by Beowulf Boritt, costumes by Mattie Ullrich and lighting by Jason Lyons all effectively contribute to the impact of the play.
Through its uniformly fine cast, the words of this play first hum, then sing and ultimately roar into your consciousness and soul.
Presented by The New Group
Clurman Theater, Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street