A story of love and two countries
BY SUBHADRA DEVAN – 22 JANUARY 2017 @ 3:27 PM
It’s the poetry in the language of Tales of A City By The Sea that ensnares your imagination as the play unfolds its bittersweet love story, writes Subhadra Devan WITH a cadence that ebbs like the whoosh of the sea, we hear but don’t see the linear narrative of a girl in love with a boy across the oceans. But it captures the mind, and engages the emotions. It feels like an honest telling by a Palestinian-Australian-Canadian playwright Samah Sabawi, of what it means to live in a besieged city, in this case Palestine.
On the small stage at Theatre KuAsh, Pusat Kreatif Kanak Kanak Tuanku Bainun in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL, we hear Jomana (played by Helana Sawires), who lives in Palestine, speak of her life and love for family and country. The budding poet has fallen for a Palestinian-American doctor, Rami (Osamah Sami) , who had used the “Free Gaza” boats way back in August 2008 to help his ancestral country.
Jomana is playing chaperone to her cousin Lama (Raja Emina Ashman), who is being courted by Ali (Reece Vella). As they wait for Ali, Jomana lashes out at the young and privileged on the Free Gaza boats whom, she claims, is treating their protest against the occupation as the in-thing to do. We hear how Jomana’s family members are on the other side of the wall, and she and her father hasn’t seen them for decades. As her love for Rami grows, soon enough he has to return home but he promises to come back to her. He uses an “underground tunnel” that connects Gaza to Egypt, with the help of Ali.
The war-torn lovers Skype amid bombings and gunfire; but Lama’s family perishes, and she swears to go on living. There is a wedding scene that livens up the 200-odd audience to no end, in this play that spans a year of Jomana’s life. Throughout the 90-minute play, an ethereal “Spirit of Gaza” (played by Tria Aziz) wanders in and out, singing Arabic songs that tug at the heart with its notes of longing and sadness. There are no surtitles to help in direct translation of the songs, which is a shame, for here is a moving story with layers of discourse.
On the surface, this is a love story, then of a country with a heartsick diaspora abroad. It is also about survival. Malaysians generally have little experience of war, bombings of cities, or even refugees for that matter. One does not meet the refugee diaspora unless as part of work or if one were to go out of the way to do so, perhaps with an non-governmental organisation. As for the Palestinian crisis, what does the average Malaysian know of it? So, Tales Of A City By The Sea is fascinating for its glimpse of what it means for a people to be in a war, and a refugee of a war-torn place. The humanity portrayed is inspiring, yet heartrending. These are a brave people, you feel.
This production is aided by a simple set of a stage, with white and red sheets hung on cable wires, which prove effective in the changing of scenes. One memorable moment is when Rami’s mum and Jomana’s dad are discussing their children’s love, in their respective countries, with their offsprings, on the same stage, separated only by a twist of a cloth on the table. The cast also did not disappear from the stage after their scenes. Instead, they sit next to it, albeit in darkness. There were occasions when that kind of an exit did not work because the scene was too emotional. For instance, Lama learns she has lost her family and weeps in Ali’s arms. The scene ends, and she exits the stage to sit at the sidelines. You too need to collect your own rollercoasting emotions, with the abrupt reminder that it’s just a play.
The award-winning play from Australia carries well due in no small part to the cast, some of whom enjoy multiple roles. On a jarring note, as most of them had distinctive Australian accents, except for Raja Emina, one wonders if it was necessary for Rami to take on a southern American one for the play. It is, after all, imaginative in production, and the accent did drop off on some instances. That said, Sawires as Jomana is an emotive actor, commanding the stage whenever she appears despite her slight frame. While Raja Emina brought forth the vivaciousness of Lama, I found Vella the most memorable actor. He brought charisma to his role of Ali, the man who can find ways to survive and be happy. His cajoling of Lama is simply winsome, while the happiness at the wedding, plainly believable. The realistic sound effects lent dramatic nuance to an already deeply-moving tale, which had no happily-ever-after ending. We are instead confronted by Rami being questioned for entering Gaza illegally, although he cries that it has something to do with his “brown skin”, and Jomana is left wondering about his release, if ever. With that, the audience is left to ponder about freedom and justice, and its modern concepts. It makes you ask yourself, what you would do in such situations. Such conversations that prompt thought are always good artistic ventures, and in this case, theatre.