Louisville Magazine

MAR 2019

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LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 3.19 45 THEATER Playwrights Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi are seated at one of four tables that have been right-angled into a square during early rehearsals of their script for e Corpse Washer, scheduled to premiere March 1 at Actors eatre as part of the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. In a large room between Actors' three performance stages and its adjacent administrative offices, the co-authors of this novel-to-play adaptation are next to director Mark Brokaw and surrounded by actors brought into town to bring the story's Iraqi characters to dramatic life. It's the first week of February and still early in the process of rehearsals and revisions of this commissioned work. e Corpse Washer probes the human struggle — the toll on families surviving bloodshed — during the repeated wars and violence that have devastated Iraq since the 1980s. American intervention has triggered much of the tragedy. With this play, Wallace and Khalidi invite us to become intimately acquainted with the "others" — people we have perhaps previously caricatured, even demonized. ey ask us to allow the Iraqis of Baghdad entry into our minds, even if they are welcomed less these days at our borders. Wallace, 58, has clasped the more unruly ends of her naturally gray- streaked mane into a ponytail, a loose strand of which she twirls before leaning over to Khalidi (pronounced Ha-la-dee) and whispering a thought. He nods in agreement. "We're going to cut three lines here," Wallace says, her voice low but heard by all. Attentive actors and members of the production crew Bringing Death to Life By Bruce Allar | Photos by Mickie Winters A well-tuned writing partnership delivers Middle Eastern high drama to the Humana Festival stage. dutifully make notes on their scripts. She has said during past interviews that the collaboration of bringing a work to stage — with directors, actors, even co-authors — is a major reason she has scripted nearly 20 plays, since beginning her writing career as a poet. (is will be her fourth script for the Humana Festival.) "I just love good stories, whether they're in Louisville, Kentucky, or Palestine or Iraq," she says. "I try to imagine lives that I know very little about." Wallace grew up in two places: Prospect, Kentucky, and Amsterdam. Her father, Henry Wallace, was a gentleman farmer on land off Rose Island Road near the Ohio River who brought in exotic animals and opened to the public as Henry's Ark. Once a correspondent for Time and Life magazines, he became a supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, marched against the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and, with daughter Carla, for the Fairness Campaign in Louisville. After Sonja de Vries (the mother of Naomi and her five siblings) split with Henry, she returned to her native Netherlands, where she was a social activist and one-time member of that country's Communist Party. Naomi became a product of both environments. "I guess my interest, if I'm going to say, as an American playwright is to know that the history of this country has always been intimately tied up with the histories of others abroad, mostly through war," Wallace says. "I've always been interested in, as (Khalidi) says, our taxes at work abroad." In the scene being rehearsed, Jawad, e Corpse Washer's main character, has returned to the Baghdad university where he studied art before the U.S. invasion in 2003. e school has been bombed, but the aspiring artist sets to work on a sculpture amid the ruins. A guard enters and asks what he's making. Jawad: "I'm using some of the debris around here for a new piece. I can see what I need to make in my head, but it's just not there yet. But it will be. And perhaps with its genius will come my ticket to…elsewhere." "at's right," a guard affirms. "University of Elsewhere's the only place left intact." "Elsewhere" proves elusive for Jawad, who pursues it in a variety of ways, only to be thwarted by events and by the tug of his family, which tends to the bodies of victims in Iraq's seemingly endless upheaval. His struggle lies at the heart of Sinan Antoon's 2010 novel of the same name, which both Wallace and Khalidi found so loaded with theater potential. Wallace and Khalidi have known each other approximately 15 years. Khalidi, 37, was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to Palestinian parents and reared in Chicago. As an actor early in his career, he appeared in one of Wallace's earlier collaborations, Twenty One Positions: A Cartographic Dream of the Middle East. ey later co-authored an adaptation of Returning to Haifa from a novella about life in the Palestinian-Israeli crucible. is family drama, about a Palestinian couple returning to their former home now occupied by an Israeli, was commissioned by the New York Public eater, but, according to the Guardian, never made the stage there due to pressure from the theater's board. It instead premiered at London's

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