A Night In Damascus

A Night In Damascus

‘10,000 Balconies’ a powerful journey of love and loss



Wrapped up inside the TheatreSquared workshop production of “10,000 Balconies” were all the griefs of war, displacement, death, the loss of a city, a life, a home, a dream. But the overwhelming emotions at the final curtain were hope and joy. That is the enormous talent of playwright Kholoud Sawaf, who knows that pain and clings to that hope.

The opening night experience Aug. 30 started in the lobby of TheatreSquared with Syrian sweets, tamarind drink, the scents of tuberoses and jasmine and the live music of Arabic drum and daf leading playgoers in to the black box theater, where a beautiful set — with balconies, of course — immediately transported us into a place of beauty and peace, music and family. There we met the characters we know and love, immediately recognizable even in a different culture and many times in a different language. If this approach doesn’t bridge the gap with a culture, then I can’t imagine what would! Though the piece has completely let go of Shakespeare’s plot and language, it still beats with the heart of the beloved characters.

Now a graduate of the University of Arkansas with a master of fine arts degree in directing, Sawaf worked for three years to bring this exceptional vision of her home in Damascus to the stage. The creative process was funded by a $250,000 grant from the Building Bridges Program of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Arts. The ultimate goal, she said at the beginning, was to illuminate the humanity of this culture and this place — Syria — and give it “the sense of home” she grew up with, “not what we see on the newsreel.”

She did so breathtakingly. And so did the cast members and performers, who all had a connection to the levant area as illustrated in their connection to each moment in the piece and the specificity of the culture that was offered. And, as Sawaf pointed out in a previous interview, “it’s certainly the biggest full cast of color on the stage of TheatreSquared, which is very exciting.”

The story progressed as you might expect, through love and loss, as Jasmeen and Rumman find that the world will — as it always has — conspire to tear them apart. In Jasmeen, Victoria Nassif created one of the most powerful, beautiful “Juliets” I have ever seen in a lifetime of loving Shakespeare, her joy and love as palpable as her longing and loss, and Waseem Alzer as “Romeo” embodied all the innocence that defines the character.

All the beauty of the performance aside, perhaps the best part was seeing the audience members — largely middle-American — receive the play with open arms and hearts. Playgoers were alternately laughing, crying and sometimes resoundingly silent, eager to know more about this world, so foreign to most of us, rooting for the characters’ love and shaken by their loss. Sawaf’s vision challenged us to be engaged with the piece for the entirety of the performance, invited us to ask questions, and left us yearning to learn more about the work and the world we saw.

Sawaf’s direction of “10,000 Balconies” was sharp, specific and jumped effortlessly between text and music, poetry and spoken language, and comedy and tragedy. The young director’s talent (as we saw previously in the T2 production of “Vietgone”) is rooted in strong visual storytelling and a sense of imagination fed by the musicality of the work and an enormous sense of theatricality she brings.

The brief run of this play made for the kind of moments that will never be the same anywhere else. What an honor to be part of it!

Categories: Theater