“During peacetime, when we need metaphors, we raid the language of war. But the idiom of wartime is food: cannon fodder, carnage, slaughterhouse. Buildings and people are pancaked, sandwiched, sardined,” writes Annia Ciezadlo in Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love, and War. “Perhaps it is because the destruction reminds us of the knowledge we spend our lives avoiding—that we are all meat in the end.”
And yet, at the same time, a cherished family recipe can help us to rebuild—a memory, a tradition, or even a relationship itself. This duality is borne out in This Is Who I Am, a virtual play in which a video call between a father and son becomes an arena in which to examine the effects drawn-out violent conflicts can have on us—both culturally and generationally. And while all the individual ingredients of this world-premiere two-hander are delightful, I found the finished dish to ultimately be somewhat lacking.
Written specifically for virtual production by Amir Nizar Zuabi and directed by Evren Odcikin, This Is Who I Am is co-presented by PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in association with American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, the Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The play is being presented live during each performance, rather than in a view-on-demand format. While this allows for the kind of improvisation that makes live theatre so exciting, it also opens the door for technical difficulties. On the evening I was watching, the performance had to be paused for just such a reason about 10 minutes into the play. After 15 or 20 minutes of tinkering, the actors began again from the top. It’s a credit to the cast that they carried on admirably following the interruption, and hopefully the rest of the run will go off without any hitches.
The story itself centers on a video call between a Palestinian father (Ramsey Faragallah) and his son (Yousof Sultani), who are connecting from thousands of miles and multiple time zones away. They have come together, virtually, from their respective kitchens to try to recreate a recipe—fatayer, a turnover or hand pie stuffed, in this case, with spinach and onions—the way their late wife/mother did. From the very first moments, the tension between the two is palpable. The son’s note right off the bat that it’s odd that his father would even ask to cook with him, since he made so much fun of him as a child for spending time in the kitchen with his mother.
Thus begins the exercise of preparing the recipe—and the more important process of connecting across continents as well as a deep parent-child rift. Memories are brought up and refuted, buried truths told, and old wounds opened in an attempt to allow them to finally heal. This is a device I’ve seen used in other plays—in Jennifer Fawcett’s Apples in Winter, a mother, alone on stage, bakes a pie in real time for her son who is to be executed the following day—but it’s particularly suited to the video call format of this piece, and allows the audience to grapple with very big themes from a deeply complex conflict through an extremely intimate, almost voyeuristic, lens.
The title This Is Who I Am comes from something the aforementioned wife/mother said when asked why she chose to prepare this particular dish for the father on their first date: “This is who I am… a pocket full of surprises.” Unfortunately, for me, that was exactly what this production lacked. The writing, performances, and direction were all beautiful, as was the examination of the hardening of a man that constant violent conflict can cause and the effect this can have on his son. However, nothing about This Is Who I Am particularly surprised me or caught me off guard; I had the trajectory of the play mapped out pretty much from the first few moments, and it never really diverged from that predicable path.
This is not to say that the experience of watching This Is Who I Am is unpleasant, not by any means. Like a beloved family recipe, there can be real pleasure in familiarity and fine artistry. And at the end of a year during which we’ve lost so much being so disconnected from so many, a little comfort food doesn’t sound half bad.
With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a snippet of a poem that I return to every year around the holidays and that immediately came to mind while I was watching This Is Who I Am—”Grace” by Jake Adam York:
“because meals are memorials
that teach us how to move,
history moves in us as we raise
our voices and then our glasses
to pour a little out for those
who poured out everything for us,
we pour ourselves for them,
so they can eat again.”
This Is Who I Am
December 5 – January 3, 2021
$15.99 – $30.99
This Is Who I Am by Amir Nizar Zuabi. Directed by Evren Odcikin. Featuring Ramsey Faragallah and Yousof Sultani. Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez. Costume Designer: Dina El-Aziz. Lighting Designer: Reza Behjat. Sound Designer: James Ard. Video and Streaming Systems Designer: Ido Levran. Livestream Manager: Rachael Danielle Albert. Dramaturg: Joseph Haj. Casting Director: X Casting. Produced by PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in association with American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, the Guthrie Theater, and Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Reviewed by John Bavoso.