The Black Eyed may have just opened at New York Theatre Workshop, but don't think for a second that it is a work in progress. Playwright Betty Shamieh has been working on this powerful show for five years, and it is now (like last month's NYTW show, Horizon) a masterful combination of theatrical craft and intelligent writing, and a human and political exploration of our post-9/11 perceptions, suffused with a subtle staging by Sam Gold and the rich emotions of a talented quartet of women.
The Black Eyed is an important and harshly relevant new work: controversial, but not to the point of self-combustion. Shamieh's questions are chokingly precise--"Why is violence only wrong when we [Palestinians] use it?"--and her answers range from pretty to vague and pretty vague. This is a compliment: she doesn't try to answer questions, but rather questions the answers of complacent people. Rather than settling on the easily inflammable issue of suicide bombing, she widens the scope to all of history's martyrs, and to the women that are their consequence. The angry, disillusioned, young bomber Aiesha (Aysan Celik), is met in her pink-walled limbo by Delilah (Emily Swallow), Samson's famous seductress; Tamam (Lameece Issaq), one of the many callously killed victims of the Crusades; and a young, nameless woman known only by her job, The Architect (Jeanine Serralles), and the hard-to-articulate hopes and dreams of our generation.
The Black Eyed is a hip play, though it bows to classicism. The characters double as a Greek chorus, although their interjections and echoes are used more as punctuation for Shamieh's slam-poetry verse. Paul Steinberg's stage is the audience's section of an amphitheater, all steps and levels, but it's modernized by an ominous wooden ceiling that hangs low above the audience. As for Gabriel Berry's costumes, the different outfits look less like anachronisms than evolutions in design, with similar patterns and blending colors binding these Palestinians together, even as centuries threaten to tear them apart. Director Sam Gold does such an excellent job managing the production values that the tangential nature of the show ends up being cohesive, and the individual plaints of these women add up to building the central dramatic arc.
The greatest surprise of The Black Eyed is its wit. The humor is a skirt for the passive politicizing behind the satire (like a commercial for the United States of Israel and Palestine: "Palreal"), but that doesn't stop the skirt from being pleated with increasingly complex ideas. Nor does the beauty of the gossamer language hide the presence of vulgarity: Aiesha is a bilious character who goads the other women by saying "Crudeness is necessary for clarity." Aiesha never knew beauty in her short life, and it's telling that the few moments of revered speech are reserved for her weapons: "I built something more intricate than the human heart,/hugged it to my chest,/and walked into the biggest crowd I could find."
The script is genius ("Arrogance is confidence that is snuffed out,/resuscitated,/and is never quite the same again"), but simply quoting it separates text from emotion, the too-easy escape from resolution. It also takes away from the wonderful actresses of this show, who stab these words at us with effortless grace. Issaq drops Tamam's prideful carriage just enough to let us see her relish the castration that she will one day exact on her rapists, Celik transforms Aiesha's rage into a terrifying passion, Swallow hides Delilah's guilt and shame beneath layers of silken cloth and silken seduction, and Serralles steals the show with her mastery of The Architect's intense and desperate fantasies.
The Black Eyed envelopes us in the human stories and sufferings of these beautiful, tragic women, and through their eyes, dares to question our callous answers to thoughts like, "So what if terror helped bring down apartheid in South Africa?" "So what if the Black Panther Movement got civil rights workers moving just a little bit quicker?" By no means does Betty Shamieh condone terrorism, nor is her play even about terrorism, but The Black Eyed speaks to the need to be heard beneath it all, and uses what should be the universal language of theater to poke, prod, and plead for understanding.