America “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon, and returning him safely to the earth,” said John Kennedy, in whose building this astonishing play is briefly being produced. “This is a new Ocean, and I believe the United States must sail upon it.”
But if the United States could go to the moon, fifty years ago or more, why can’t a television repairman living in Israeli-occupied Palestine, using dishwasher parts and material obtained on the dark web, go to the moon now? “We don’t do it because it’s easy,” Yusuf (Khalifa Natour) explains to his young acolyte Fadel (Ivan Kervork Azazian), echoing Kennedy, “we do it because it’s hard.”
It is hard, too, for Yusuf. Almost pathologically secretive about his project, Yusuf has made himself the target of a rainbow of suspicions, from that he is collaborating with the Israelis to that he is planning to kill them. His imam, Sheik (Motaz Malhees) is horrified when he learns Yusef’s true plan. His daughter’s choleric, comically self-absorbed fiancée, Jawad (Alaa Shehada) is desperate to make him stop whatever it is he’s doing, and even his daughter Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is worried that in his stubbornness Yusuf has made some colossal error. And yet, as they say, he persisted.
World Stages: Grey Rock closes February 1, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
The moon landing was a triumph of technology, but, more importantly, a triumph of willpower. Through cost overruns, catastrophic mistakes and even death, the American space program soldiered on, set in motion by the charge its dead prince uttered.
Made bereft and adrift by the death, three years previous, of the woman who tethered him to this earth, Yusuf can fill the void caused by her absence only by a project so massive that it would fit in that void. And so he blows by cost overruns and mistakes. No sacrifice is too large for this difficult, abstracted man; his original plans call for his own home to serve as the launch tower, and thus to be incinerated by the blastoff backwash. (His substitute plans are even more astonishing.)
Writer-director Amir Nizar Zuabi’s scheme is to withhold emotional content from us for as long as possible, so that when it hits, it hits with the force of — well, why not just say it — of a rocket launch. For this, he has the perfect instrument in Natour’s Yusuf, who, in his stone-faced dourness, seems like the word “no” come to life. And yet, with his huge, empty voice he is also “yes” to all that is noble and costly; having already lost his life — sorry, his wife … he is now open to the universe, in all its danger and beauty.
He recalls the moment they fell in love, standing together in the square below the Mayor’s balcony, watching the town’s only television as Neil Armstrong stepped out of that old conical jalopy and touched the face of God. She slipped her hand in his. “It was one small step for man,” he says, tears streaming down his face, “and one giant leap for my heart.”
Our hearts, too, leap when we commit to great things. In fact, we call it our “moon shot”, whether it be bringing peace to the Middle East, staving off global warming, bringing the deficit (now as large as the moon) under control, or just finding a way to send our kids to college. In our present age of smallness, Yusuf’s audacity reminds us of all the other audacious things we could be doing, if we had the willpower.
This production is, in itself, somewhat of a moon shot in that the company is one of Palestinian actors, not all of whom speak English, who have put together a production almost wholly in English. (There is a brief passage in which Yusuf and Sheik trade verses of the Quran in Arabic). Those actors who do not speak the language have learned the script phonetically. Their emphasis, expressions, and gestures show a profound understanding of the story, even in the absence of an understanding of the language. As I watched the play on Thursday night, I could not tell which, if any, actors could speak English.
English speakers or no, these actors will match anything you can see on stage. Yusuf’s final monologue will leave you in tears. A fistfight between Jawad and Fadel (no fight choreographer credited) convinces, even from the third or fourth row. And a verbal fist fight between Lila and Yusuf, in which she vividly relives the cost of his principled stay in jail on her mother and her childhood self, draws more blood than the one between Fadel and Jawad. If Yusuf’s bewildered response seems familiar, just imagine he said, “it was a new Ocean, and I believe I had to sail upon it.”
In addition to English and Arabic, the play has a smattering of Latin. Although it is not that smattering, the State Motto of Kansas could provide a subtitle for Grey Rock: Ad Astra per Aspera (to the stars through difficulties).
But the stars, and aspirations, are no respecters of national or language boundaries. “Earth is the cradle of the mind,” said the great Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
“But we cannot live in the cradle forever.”
Grey Rock, written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, featuring Khalifa Natour, Ivan Kervork Azazian, Motaz Malhees, Alaa Shehada, and Fidaa Zaidan . Sound design: Katie Down . Lighting design: Muaz Jubeh . Set and projection design: Tal Yarden . Produced by the Remote Theater Project (Alexandra Aron, Producing Artistic Director. Presented by the Kennedy Center’s World Stages project . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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