In The Play Company’s site-specific production of Amir Nizar Zuabi’s’ Oh My Sweet Land, the thematically-resonant specifics of the site(s) contribute more to the play’s intended effect than the actual text.
The need for those parentheses points to the readily-apparent intrigue of the run’s conceit: each performance is produced in a different space across the five boroughs; some are conventional theatres, while others are community centers or even random households. One constant remains: each venue must be intimate and come with a kitchen, in which Nadine Malouf – the only actor in this one-woman show – cooks a Syrian dish. Over the course of her 60-minute monologue, this Syrian-American character regales the audience with stories that chronicle her relationship with her ancestral homeland.
Cooking has long been a fascination for playwrights, as most recently (and most memorably, at least for me) seen in Richard Nelson’s two “family cycles.” Like theatre, homemade food is a personally nurturing and often nutritional vehicle for cross-cultural communication. When a group of people share a meal, they share an experience in a shared space, and hopefully dining and digesting together — be it actual food or food for thought — will facilitate greater understanding amongst all involved. Through this act of generosity, the creators — chefs and playwrights alike — provide their consumers with something to chew on and fondly remember. Food and art have always been great unifiers for humanity.
Yet cooking comes with a dark underbelly. Eating can often be a violent act — think of teeth voraciously biting into blood red meat — that almost always involves killing a living animal for our pleasure (even vegans must murder plants for their consumption). On a sociological level, many fans of ethnic cuisine may conflate their familiarity with and affection for exotic dishes with a deep understanding and kinship with their countries of origin. Similarly, frequenters of global theatre — those who seek out art that hopefully facilitates a worldlier perspective — often subsequently consider themselves experts in the foreign affairs depicted (the play’s title – specifically the phrase “sweet land” – further emphasizes how food and art can be a window, albeit usually a superficial one, into cultures abroad).
Oh My Sweet Land deserves credit for inspiring these illuminating ideas, but most reside almost purely in the subtext of the piece. Unfortunately, the actual text, Malouf’s speech, rarely probes these subjects. Instead, it’s comprised of a fairly straightforward story that’s nevertheless difficult to follow because the communicative words are so detached from Malouf’s actions on stage. There’s a thematic connection between her cooking and her tale, but in terms of the narrative, her one-woman delivery fails to demand attention for the entire duration. Ultimately, the mind wanders as much as this roving production.