REVIEW: Suitcase Unpacks Belonging, Longing, and Possession
Terre Chartrand reviews the premiere of Suitcase, written by Ahmad Meree and produced by Theatre Mada:
We enter the theatre to a minimal set of draped shining and iridescent cloth, two chairs standing side by side, and a suitcase off to stage right. A simple rectangle of light encases a small space around the chairs. This setting, these objects, exist as a context-building set for the life of a refugee couple. Suitcase, written by Ahmad Meree, is a years-long response to real life experience that he has lived through as an artist immigrating from Syria. In this play we are asked to consider the lives of refugees and the series of liminal spaces they inhabit, one of which is the very concept of belonging and possession. Suitcase is about what we leave behind, but the metaphor becomes much larger than any single material item.
In addition to writing, Meree also takes to the stage alongside Nada Abusaleh playing Samer and Razan, two refugees from the Syrian war. Majdi Bou Matar directs, with set design by Julia Kim, lighting by Chris Malkowski, sound by Janice Lee, and stage management by Isaac Mule.
The stage picture is austere, stripped back, and represents a minimalism in design. The lights dim and the rippling cloth takes on a life of its own. Never distracting, it fills the space with impressions of walls, of weather, of rough seas.
The lights come back, but where are we? Here is the thrust of the play: we are nowhere in particular, we are in a series of many specific places, maybe we aren’t even alive anymore. But one sure thing is that we are waiting. In this space which is no place in particular, but occasionally a space of strong feeling of somewhere that is never home we wait, and wait. In an interview with Meree and Bou Matar, Meree describes to me the liminality of this wait, and how even after moving and settling here for a couple years, he still feels hung in a balance. Between language-learning, finding himself in a new culture, and making his way setting up a new life in adulthood, the question of finding a sense of belonging is one that stays with him. This piece of theatre was started during the bombing of Aleppo, his home city. It was finished here – also a symbol of this waiting. One home is gone, and another home has yet to emerge.
Suitcase has Bou Matar’s mark as a director with the minimalist set and the strong physicality. I have had the pleasure of witnessing several of Bou Matar’s work as a director in Seasons of Immigration, The Last 15 Seconds, Body 13, and Occupy Spring.What is unique in this piece, and which adds another dimension to the intercultural nature of Bou Matar’s previous work, is that the play is entirely presented in Arabic, translated for the English-speaking audience through subtitles projected overhead. In our interview, Bou Matar describes Canadian theatre as often very multicultural but “usually presented in English or French.” Bringing a show to a wide audience of the general public in Arabic is unique. The subtitles sit upstage, taking nothing away from the piece as it unfolds. The translations are meant to give a guide to the textual and narrative elements of the piece for an English speaking audience, while the use of Arabic guides the story beyond the physical performance. The subtleties are not as beautiful as they sound in the Arabic words themselves. I speak two languages and can attest to how much gets lost in translation, never mind when the action unfolds in a portrayal of real life.
The deeper subtext emerges for the English audience in the expressions and bodies of the characters, rather than their words. The action unfolding onstage is physically expressed in such a way that whatever subtleties and subtext may be missing in the translated text can be found in the expressions and bodies of the characters.A particularly poignant scene occurs when Samer (Meree) approaches a microphone to deliver a short thank you monologue in English. This incredibly eloquent musician, who composes lyric and poetry in his own country, fumbles his way through basic language. Anyone who has learned a second language knows the feeling of having their highest thoughts and words of love and beauty stripped away into the most basic functionalities of expression.
Opposite Samer, Razan is a character of depth who challenges Western perspectives of Middle Eastern women. She is not stoic and obedient to her male counterpart, as media and pop culture so often portrays. Razan is a journalist beginning to climb in her career just as the war picks up tempo. She also expresses a unique cultural component of Syrian society, which is both multicultural and multifaith: while Samer is Muslim, she is Christian. Through her self-expression—from using yoga and meditation as a focusing technique to reduce the anxiety of waiting, to her playful expressions of sexuality and desire for her husband—she depicts, with complexity and nuance, a modern cosmopolitan life not much different from our own.
In a similar situation to Samer, she approaches a microphone and describes a time when she was detained and subjected to torture. Her delivery is emotional but also devoid of overt demonstration. Her physicality and the timber of her voice stir me emotionally, feeling the shock that has stripped a strong woman from the ability to be overtaken by her own grief and fear. Throughout this scene, and an equally tense scene where Samer also describes violence and torture, we see a couple who have worked hard to protect each other from their individual traumas by suppressing the hard realities. They speak their stories to each other in a moment of healing, in an effort to be the same in their love and marriage after such truths are revealed as they were before.
What does one put in one’s suitcase if they are leaving and never coming back? Suitcase’s audience is brought on a journey that leads us, through longing and missing, to the act of forgetting what is forgotten. I feel a deep empathy for all those things one could never fit into a suitcase, in the moments where people have to leave without time for a deep consideration of what should be brought. In a rush, what gets packed? How do we pack relationships into a suitcase, and what happens to the ones we leave behind?
Terre Chartrand is an Algonquin and French-Canadian artist living in Waterloo Region who has a background in literature, theatre, visual arts, photography, digital interactivity, and science. Terre is currently the artistic director of Pins and Needles Fabric Company, an Indigenous inter-arts company in Waterloo Region.