Tuesday, November 19, 2019

"Where Are You From?": Sara Abou Rashed Movingly Addresses Past, Present and Future in 'A Map of Myself' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Reviews

A Map of Myself
written & performed by Sara Abou Rashed
directed by Larry Smith
Single performance on November 16
Stage 773, Chicago 

In the coming days, I will begin a barrage of Seth Saith “Best Of” posts, chronicling my choices for the “Best of 2019” as well as—separately--“Best of the Decade: 2010-19.”

In the realm of theater, for the decade, categories will include not only “Best New Musicals” and “Best New Plays,” but also “Best Solo Theatrical Performances.”

My selections (and other shows considered) for the latter list won’t be exactly parallel, as some will represent individuals embodying a famous person—Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Simon Wiesenthal—while others may be biographical about those lesser known, or purely fictional. 

Some pieces will have written by the performer and some not; perhaps as personal memoirs but not always.

I won’t give away my choices or rankings, as I have yet to make them, but just within the last few weeks, I’ve loved John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (essentially a comedic educational monologue), a play called Every Brilliant Thing featuring a single actress and, if not quite fantastic, seeing Ed Asner elaborate on A Man and His Prostate allowed me to see the great Ed Asner onstage, in a show someone else wrote about his own prostate.

Since 2010—so not including Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, which I saw and loved twice in the prior decade—I have seen five noteworthy solo shows in which the performer primarily chronicled their own personal experiences.

One was by Bruce Springsteen, my favorite musician. (I am generally not looping in solo musical concerts nor stand-up comedians, but Springsteen on Broadway was a scripted theatrical piece.)

Another was by the late, great Carrie Fisher; a show titled Wishful Drinking.

Though I wasn’t much familiar with him previously, in seeing David Cale perform We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time at the Goodman Theatre, I learned that Cale was a rather esteemed monologuist.

Two others happen to be by Muslim women.

In early 2015, at the Skokie Public Library, I was delighted to see Rohina Malik perform Unveiled, and have been pleased that she’s found subsequent success with some excellent, full-cast plays.

And on Saturday night at Stage 773, I saw a 20-year-old college student named Sara Abou Rashed, who came to the United States six years ago without knowing any English, deliver the highly eloquent and poignant, A Map of Myself, which she wrote.

I opened this review the way I did to reflect my appreciation for solo performances and establish that I’ve seen enough to think I have a sense of what can make one scintillating.

While I won’t suggest that Abou Rashed—an untrained actor and as a writer, primarily heretofore a poet—delivered a solo show that quite rivaled Springsteen, Fisher, Crystal, Leguizamo, Stacy Keach (as Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona) or some others in terms of reach, timing and entertainment value, her poise, natural grace, varied tonality, messaging and thematic poignancy were rather astonishing.

This is especially impressive in noting that it was just her 14th performance of A Map of Myself--subtitled A 70-Minute, One-Woman Revolution on War, Immigration, Language, Home, History and Everything in Between--and the first outside her current hometown of Columbus, OH. (She's now a student at nearby Denison University.)

Interestingly, although I attend dozens of stageworks in a given year by press invitation, subscription or being enticed by marketing, reviews or word of mouth, I only heard of the one-off performance of A Map of Myself because my friend Ken Stasiak is acquainted with the director, Larry Smith, via his Six-Word Memoirs website and books.

Ken has been a regular contributor to SixWordMemoirs.com for years—my own SixWordPortraits.com site is an unaffiliated, non-income offshoot to which Smith gave his blessing—and has been included in two compilation tomes to date.

So when Larry alerted Ken that he would be bringing Sara and A Map of Myself to Chicago, Ken not only got us tickets, he conducted an interview with Larry that I recently published on Seth Saith.

As Smith explained, he became aware of Abou Rashed through her own, rather compelling Six-Word Memoir--"Escaped war; war didn't escape me."--and A Map of Myself evolved out of gifts she showcased at live speaking engagements Smith organized.

As Ken had noted in his preview piece, Sara's monologue has gotten considerable commendations, but I was nonetheless surprised by how smoothly she covered personal--and sometimes quite troubling--ground, even in seamlessly restoring full power to her headset mic the few times it fluttered.

She told how she grew up in Syria--a country she continues to love for its beauty and its people--but that her grandmother was Palestinian, and as established by a DNA test, a whole lot of other ethnicities, including Italian, Greek, Jewish and more.

Encouraged by her Uncle Sam--the coincidence of whose name Sara glibly noted--a U.S. resident for nearly 40 years, Sara and her mom moved to Columbus on the 4th of July, 2013. (Mrs. Abou Rashed was in the audience on Saturday; I don't recall any mention of Sara's father in the monologue or Q&A that followed.)

Sara spoke with pride about her mom (a teacher), her own choice to wear an Islamic head covering known as a hijab, and recalled how on her first school day in America, without yet knowing any English, she was a tad bewildered when the class assignment was to read Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey, which runs about 600 pages.

The absorbing recollections were punctuated by Abou Rashed's recitation of her poetry, at times in Arabic but also in English. In sharing that she also speaks French, Sara incisively commented that "Language decides who you are, who gets to belong."

In saying this she was reflecting upon the preconceptions--and sometimes outright hate--people can experience due to being heard speaking Arabic in the U.S., or maybe just accented English.

So it was particularly powerful when during a poem called "I Am America," Sara stated:

"No one can define me." 

Soon followed by:

"America, they do not know you like I do."

From the 70 or so minutes she was onstage and a few moments of conversation I had with her after, I'm left with no doubt that Sara Abou Rashed is a woman worth knowing, perhaps most so by those otherwise inclined to scorn, ignore or pre-judge her.

And her show is definitely worth seeing, at whatever point you might be able to. In addition to returning to Chicago, Smith hopes for A Map of Myself to wind up on Netflix. I agree that it's certainly worthy, and though it's a distinct, self-contained piece, I believe it would pair well with Malik's Unveiled.

As I tried to imply at top, it can't be easy being onstage alone. Perhaps particularly as a 20-year-old immigrant who has never studied acting or theater (she's majoring in Creative Writing at Denison).

But if you went to a middle school that was shaken by bombs, if you left your beloved home country expecting to return but were told that would be untenable, if you arrived in the United States as a young teenager and subsequently opted to write about your experiences at a time when the President himself has stoked anti-Muslim sentiment, well, it would seem acting courageously might well come naturally.

As such, as performed by its writer, A Map of Myself is truly something for us all to behold. 

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Excellent review Seth. I too was moved by Sara and her poetic sensibilities. I think we're going to be seeing a lot of this talented young woman in the future.

Hey, how about a "best of the century" so far piece?