Selected Theatrical Productions

Art by Yasmina Reza, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by Oregon Contemporary Theatre. Production run: June 4-12, 2021 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, Eugene, Oregon.

Brian Haimbach, Rich Brown, and Kelly Oristano in Art. Photo by Eric James Hadley.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

Getting Back to Creating Art
“I would rather see great dreams in small places, than small dreams in great places.”
—Robert Edmond Jones, Theatre Designer

I first encountered Yasmina Reza’s play Art as an undergraduate theatre student in the mid-1990s. I remember being struck by its complex characters, witty dialogue, and dramatic structure. The play premiered in French in 1994 at Comédie des Champs-Élysées in Paris, and the English-language translation premiered in London in 1996 starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, and Ken Stott. The Broadway production opened in 1998 starring Alan Alda as Marc, Victor Garber as Serge, and Alfred Molina as Yvan. Art was awarded the Tony Award for Best Play.

Following a long hiatus due to this pandemic, we are all overjoyed to return to Oregon Contemporary Theatre to present this production of Art to you. Despite the necessity for Zoom plays during the height of the pandemic, it became utterly clear to all of us that theatre is not theatre unless it is happening in person before a live audience. Zoom plays are a necessary measure, and they may well become their own artistic genre, but there is absolutely nothing that compares with being together, creating theatre, and presenting it to an eager audience willing to be in person when the lights come up and the actors speak. Our rehearsals began in masks, then, as we were all fully vaccinated, the actors rehearsed maskless. Being together again rehearsing a play, after overcoming the difficulties we have all faced over the past year, was a truly astonishing experience.

We are so grateful to all of you who have joined us for this live event because it tells us that the theatre, which has faced many pandemics, closures, and calamities in its long history, remains a vital and necessary part of our lives. We often talk about how theatre cannot survive in the age of mass media, on-demand streaming, and blockbuster Hollywood entertainment. However, all of you gathered here this evening know, there is nothing like live performances and there never will be. All the streaming and virtual technology in the world cannot replace the visceral thrill of being in a theatre watching actors perform with an audience sharing the experience. This is what we live for as theatre artists and I would bet it is the same thing that you, as theatre lovers, revel in as well. Tonight, as we gather to experience Art, let us celebrate the difficult year we have been though and look forward to many more exciting nights of live theatre to come.

Sons of the Prophet by Stephen Karam, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by the University of Oregon. Production run: January 24-February 8, 2020 at the Hope Theatre, University of Oregon.

Alex Mentzel and Jen Gerold in Sons of the Prophet. Photo by Pam Cressall.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet is a comic meditation on life, love, and loss. The characters and the location of the play are not particularly exceptional. The two brothers, Joseph and Charles, are assimilated Lebanese Americans living in Pennsylvania working run-of-the-mill jobs and living with their always inappropriate, not-P.C., Uncle Bill. Joseph dreamt of being an Olympic marathoner, until his knees gave out. Charles could be a great geographer, but he doesn’t have the resources. Bill worked in the steel mill until it shut down and moved away. Gloria was a famous publisher but suffered a family tragedy and then fell from grace. Vin might be a great football star had it not been for his lousy teammates who put him up to a juvenile prank. Everyone in the play got a raw deal, and no one is really to blame. Like the characters, we all start off thinking we are on the right track but, little by little, life knocks us off course until we cannot even recognize the destination once we’ve arrived.

Karam, like the Douaihy brothers in the play, calls himself “the first gay member of a devout Maronite Catholic family.” The Maronites come from a long and orthodox religious tradition that dates to the late fourth century A.C.E. They trace their faith to St. Maron and the monastery founded between Aleppo and Antioch. By the eighth century they moved to the remote mountains of current-day Lebanon where they have existed in relative isolation. Their most famous saints—Saint Charbel and Saint Rafqa—are venerated in Lebanon to this day and people still believe in their power to heal the gravest injuries of the body and soul.

The play also deals with the great Lebanese American writer Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931). I have studied and written about Gibran for years now, and I have visited his grave and museum in Lebanon. He’s an icon there, even though he did most of his greatest work here in the United States. Gibran was an American author, but he is always relegated to the “Spirituality” or “New Age” aisle at American bookstores. He should be there alongside Melville, Vonnegut, and Angelou but, because he came from “The East,” he is viewed differently.

Unfortunately, we are still dealing with Orientalism in the 21st century. My hope is that plays like this, and scholarship about the early Arab American poets and playwrights, will eventually change our views about these writers in the future. Gibran’s quote, “You are far greater than you know, and all is well” rings throughout the play as a reminder to us all that, no matter what life throws at us, there is always something we can be thankful for.

It must be said that Bill’s many outbursts, especially those scapegoating immigrants and people of color, are a reflection of the unfortunate state of our nation today. Instead of focusing on the deleterious effects of globalization and the dispossession of people of color, he turns his frustration on those who are the most vulnerable in our society. This is especially ironic since Bill and his family were refugees themselves. It highlights the unfortunate fact that, after achieving some social capital, some immigrants who suffered injustice and persecution but “made it” in America, can turn on other immigrants who are also trying to achieve the American dream. With attitudes like Bill’s, is it any wonder our nation is in the condition it finds itself today?

I chose this play because there are no antagonists, which is not to say the characters do not mercilessly antagonize one another. They are quite often terrible to each other, and they often say the most outrageous and horrible things. Ultimately, they are all fully dimensional humans trying to navigate a world that is ever changing, and they ultimately err on the side of love. Stephen Karam writes, “I love all my characters; I could forgive them all.” Wouldn’t it be something if we could all say the same about one another in real life?

Links:

Zafira and the Resistance by Kathy Haddad, co-directed by Michael Malek Najjar and Zeina Salame. Produced by New Arab American Theatre Works at the Guthrie Theatre. Production run: October 11-27, 2019 at the Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


The cast of Zafira and the Resistance. Photo by Bruce Silcox Photography.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

It is said that plays are often the dreams or nightmares of playwrights. Kathy Haddad’s Zafira and the Resistance is a nightmare—a dystopian future when, following another horrific terrorist attack on the nation, the country’s leader becomes so enraptured in his fear and loathing that he incarcerates all Arab and/or Muslim citizens. Worse, he turns its young people into soldiers in this new “resistance” movement, even incorporating the schools into detention centers and concentration camps. Is such a future so absurd? Would it be beyond our imaginations that such a thing could occur?

 From the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, to the 1978 FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), to the 2001 PATRIOT Act, to Executive Order 13769 (also called “The Muslim Ban”) there have been governmental actions that have singled out Arab and Muslim citizens for surveillance, interrogation, incarceration, and deportation. Simultaneously, there has been a transformation of the Arab/Muslim character in American film and entertainment from the benign early 20th century images of The Sheik (portrayed by Rudolph Valentino) and I Dream of Jeannie (portrayed by Barbara Eden) to the current violent terrorist Arab/Muslim characters seen in films like True Lies, Rules of Engagement, Iron Man, and The Kingdom. This is not only a post-9/11 phenomenon either. As early as 1967 the great Arab American scholar Edward W. Said wrote, “If the Arab occupies space in the mind at all, it is of negative value.” In the ensuing decades Arabs have been conflated with Muslim, and the violent actions of a few murderers have been attributed to the future actions of 1.8 billion people worldwide.

Zafira and the Resistance is a new addition to a growing body of Arab American plays by writers like Heather Raffo (9 Parts of Desire), Yussef El Guindi (People of the Book), Jamil Khoury (Mosque Alert), and Betty Shamieh (Territories). These plays merge the political voice of Arab American authors with the dramatic language of American theatre. The fact that The Guthrie Theater has co-sponsored New Arab American Theatre Works for this production, and is producing Heather Raffo’s Noura later this season, is a major milestone in Arab American theatre history. Kathy Haddad’s bold vision awakens us to the terrible realities we are confronting today as Americans living in an era of xenophobia, Arabophobia, and Islamophobia. The only question is: can we learn from such dystopian visions, or will they ultimately become our reality? The answer is up to us.

Links:

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World by Yussef El Guindi, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced my Minority Voices Theatre. Production Run: February 14-24, 2019 at the Very Little Theatre Stage Left, Eugene Oregon.

Clare McDonald and Chris Arreola in Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by Jane Stevens.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World represents an interesting shift in El Guindi’s oeuvre—the move into romantic comedy territory. The play explores the complicated nature of the transatlantic migrant having to balance commitments to their home culture, religion, and family in a new world where such matters are not as necessary or desired. Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World provides American theater audiences with a complex mosaic of Muslim experience, whether it is the diversity of Muslim backgrounds (Egyptian, Sudanese, Somali, American-born), the complexity of Muslim lives (from conservative to progressive), or Muslim customs and traditions (performing hajj and arranged marriages). El Guindi’s play refuses to allow audiences to rely on preconceived notions of Middle Easterners; rather he opts to complicate the notions we have about Muslims living in America. Most importantly, however, this play reminds us of the rich gathering of strangers we call America.

Scenes from 71* Years by Hannah Khalil, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced my Golden Thread Productions. Production Run: April 5-May 5, 2019 at the Potrero Stage, San Francisco, California.

The cast of Scenes from 71* Years by Hannah Khalil, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by Najib Joe Hakim.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

Growing up in my Lebanese-American home, my family was close to many Palestinians who always treated us like their own. I remember being invited to their homes to eat traditional Palestinian foods like maqloobeh, mansaf, shish barak, and saabieh zayneb. I heard sorrowful stories of how they and their parents were forcefully removed from their homes in 1948 and 1967, how they faced harassment every time they traveled to Palestine to visit their families, and about their longings to one day return to their homeland permanently. Hannah Khalil’s play is peopled with characters like those I have known my entire life—Palestinians yearning for a land they wish to call home once more. As American citizens, it’s time for us to acknowledge our complicity in the occupation of Palestine, and our role in the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people. American support of Israel need not exclude support of Palestinians; if we cherish freedom and democracy, as we claim to, it is imperative that we find a fair and just solution to this conflict.

Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, Translated by Tony Kushner, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by the University of Oregon. Production Run: March 2-18, 2018 at the Robinson Theatre, University of Oregon.

The acting ensemble of Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by Pam Cressall.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

Revisiting Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece Mother Courage and Her Children, the play is as prescient and vital today as it was in 1949 when it was first staged. Set during Europe’s catastrophic Thirty Years’ War, the drama takes us into the heart of a conflict that ground on for decades, gradually stripping all people of their humanity amid overwhelming carnage. The titular character is a defiant woman in a world of avaricious men who take what they want with no regard to anything but their appetites. The wagon, a character in itself, is to Mother Courage what a shell is to a turtle—the only refuge from a harsh world.

Everything about the world of this play points to the mendacity of war and how it corrupts everyone absolutely. Mother Courage states, “I want nothing more than for me and my children to get through all this with our wagon.” Gradually Mother Courage, Eilif, Swiss Cheese, and Kattrin, are consumed by the juggernaut despite their attempts to survive. The play condemns capitalism dressed in militarism and sold as patriotism.

Many criticize Mother Courage’s rapacity in chasing the war to acquire profit, but we must ask: what other means did women have to survive at that time? Would it have been better for Mother Courage and Kattrin to have no means for survival save working as prostitutes or maidservants? Mother Courage says, “If I’m left without anything, any stranger who wants can have me in a ditch.” That is incentive enough.

In the play we encounter lines that seem written for our own time. One can’t help but recall recent tax legislation when
we hear The Cook say, “…the rich can afford anything, even when it’s taxed and pricey, and even better, the rich get tax exemptions!” We consider of the 40,000 civilian dead in Mosul when we hear a soldier say, “That’s the trouble with artillery shells, they’re indiscriminate.” We can take heed of those who are suffering in our own community when we hear The Chaplain say, “You can command people to love their neighbors and if they’re full of bread they may comply.” Some truths are timeless.

Some believe that this play is too communist, too liberal, or too atheist. Brecht and his family fled Nazi Germany only to find persecution in exile in Europe and beyond. Even the United States, which should have been a beacon of liberty for Brecht’s immigrant refugee family, put him on trial during before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He left the United States the day after his testimony never to return. Imagine how the American theatre would have developed had the U.S. welcomed him and allowed him to establish his Berliner Ensemble in New York. Instead he returned to a ruined East Germany and created the greatest theatre ensemble of the twentieth century.

This social and political situation was the crucible in which Mother Courage and Her Children was fired. The play reminds us that wars are easy to start, but nearly impossible to end. In a time when our leaders are clamoring for war with bellicose rhetoric and increased funding for nuclear weapons, we would be wise to heed Brecht’s warning: “Sometimes there’s luck, and always worry. The war goes on, and perseveres! For war is never in a hurry, And it can last a thousand years.”

Semitic Commonwealth: A Staged Reading Series Consisting of Six Plays by Arab and Jewish Playwrights. Produced by Silk Road Rising. Lead Director: Michael Malek Najjar. Production Run: February 2017 at the Silk Road Rising performance venue Pierce Hall, Chicago, Illinois.

Sami Ismat, Ron Barkhordar, and Steve Silver in The Admission by Motti Lerner, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by Airan Wright.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

What can a collection of plays possibly accomplish in dealing with the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict? What is the point of art when real lives are being destroyed on a daily basis? How can a play have anything important to say about such a tragic and impossible situation? The answer: perhaps nothing, or perhaps everything. Beyond the tragic loss of human lives, the greatest loss in this conflict is the loss of empathy for the other. Somehow, both sides have found ways to delegitimize and dehumanize one another through war, propaganda, hate speech, and violent acts committed in the name of God, the state, or the homeland. This dehumanization has systematically destroyed the already tenuous relations between Arabs and Jews in the region and has allowed heinous acts to be perpetrated on a daily basis. The extremists, it seems, have won the argument and the moderates are left hopelessly bereft.

The plays we are presenting here are an attempt by these playwrights and artists to re-humanize the other. The characters in these plays are, just like the rest of us, deeply flawed individuals. They often act out of their worst, rather than their best, instincts and intentions. However, this “Semitic Commonwealth” is offering audiences a glimpse into the world not as it is, or the world as it should be, but rather as a dream of life that might be. Can we not take time to examine the wrongs that have been committed, and find constructive ways that we might be able to go on living with one another? Is there a way we can rise above our past and envision a better future? These are the questions a Semitic Commonwealth poses and dares us to ask ourselves as citizens, as artists, and as dreamers both through the plays and the interactive dialogues that surround this event.

These six plays are written by six very different, yet very talented, playwrights. They each attempt to understand different aspects of this conflict. Ismail Khalidi’s Tennis in Nablus reimagines pre-1948 Palestine during the British Mandate,  Zohar Tirosh-Polk’s The Zionists transports us back and forth from 1930s Europe to contemporary Israel, Hannah Khalil provides a kaleidoscopic overview of decades of the conflict in her Scenes from 69* Years, Mona Mansour’s Urge for Going dramatizes the lives of Palestinians living in exile in Lebanon, Motti Lerner’s The Admission is a compelling play that examines the complicated and painful history of the horrors of war and how history haunts the present, and Ken Kaissar’s The Victims dramatizes two abstract yet entwined stories that conclude with a cage and a dream. These plays speak to us as artists, as scholars, as Americans who have a vested interest in this conflict, and as people who are helplessly watching the tragic events in the Middle East unfold. We chose these plays because we believed in these playwrights and their desires to attempt to capture in words and images the joys, griefs, triumphs, and suffering of the Palestinian and Israeli people.

Each of these playwrights offers a deeply personal and very powerful message about the pain they feel with this ongoing conflict as part of their lives. For most Americans, the Israel-Palestine conflict is a distant problem that is brought to our attention whenever events there spiral out of control; but when you grow up in an Arab or Jewish household the conversation about Palestine and Israel is ever-present. Many American Jews have taken trips to Israel while many Palestinians have either visited their relatives in Palestine (when they are allowed) or have visited Palestinian refugees in the surrounding nations. Whenever violence breaks out those of Arab and Jewish descent are seized with a terrible feeling of helplessness and grief, something not shared by others around them who have no ties to the land.

Is a Semitic Commonwealth possible? Could there be a day when tourists book a high-speed rail tour that travels from Tel Aviv to Beirut, to Damascus to Baghdad, and other Middle Eastern destinations? Can we imagine a time when all of us can look back at this Palestinian-Israeli conflict the way we look back on the Hundred Years’ War—a horrific era that eventually found a solution rooted in a European Union? Can we dare to envision such an ambitious future for the Middle East? Perhaps, if we remind ourselves that Europe itself was in ruin just seventy-two years ago, we might be able to imagine a time when these tragic conflicts are also a distant memory. It may take generations, but we must find hope now if that dream is ever to materialize. Until then we must fight for a vision of Palestine and Israel as a land of peace, not as a land of perpetual war. Perhaps if we dream it, it might come to fruition.

James Joyce’s The Dead by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey, based upon James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Production Run: November 4-19, 2016 at the University of Oregon Robinson Theatre, Eugene, Oregon.

Kelsey Tidball and Alex Mentzel in the University Theatre production of James Joyce’s The Dead. Photo by Pam Cressall.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

“The world, I’ve come to think is like the surface of a frozen lake. We walk along, we slip, we try to keep our balance and not to fall. One day there’s a crack, and so we learn that underneath us—is an unimaginable depth.” —James Joyce, “The Dead”

I first experienced James Joyce’s The Dead in August 2000 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. I remember being struck by the warmth and spirit of an Irish holiday party that I, as an audience member, was invited to attend for a few hours. That production must have left a lasting impression on me, for, when it came time to propose a musical for this year’s University Theatre season I instantly recalled that performance.

Upon re-reading Joyce’s short story “The Dead” in his seminal book Dubliners, the quote above struck me to the core. Do we not go along living our lives on a surface level despite the unimaginable depths we may carry below? So many of our days, our interactions, and our goings on are spent carefully walking across the surface of this frozen lake called life. We rarely stop to think about the enormous wellspring of emotions we all have within us until a crack appears; then there is no denying that we have so much reckoning to accomplish before we finally depart this world.


The play is set during Epiphany. Although Joyce’s story is set in 1904, we’ve moved our production to the year 1913, prior to World War I (1914-1918) and prior to the Irish “Easter Rising” (1916). It’s fitting that the celebration of this Epiphany coincides with the personal epiphanies of the main characters Gretta and Gabriel. This Misses Morkans’ holiday party represents the end of things: the last party with everyone alive and well after thirty years, the passing of loved ones, the departure of so many from the Irish homeland, and the end of peace in Ireland. It also marks the crack in Gretta’s soul that leads her into the abyss of emotion she’s hidden away for so long. Gabriel has a profound realization that the woman he married, who bore his children, and that he thought he knew better than himself is, in fact, a person that has a profound grief inside of her that he never knew, and never understood. Despite this seemingly sad ending, I believe that the message is quite hopeful. Had Gretta not confronted this melancholia inside her soul, the Conroy’s marriage would never really have been mature or complete. I view Gabriel’s last song “The Living and the Dead” as a paean and not a lament reinforcing that, while we are alive, we must live.

I was asked recently: is this a musical, or a play with music? The answer is: both. Davey and Nelson have merged Joyce’s prose with the lyrical and lovely music of Ireland. Now we invite you in with us to join this beautiful ensemble as they celebrate family, friends, and one last Epiphany together. As the Irish say, “may you live as long as you want, and never want as long as you live.”

Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by University Theatre. Production Run: March 3-13, 2016 at the University of Oregon Hope Theatre, Eugene, Oregon.

Jessica Lee and Jerilyn Armstrong embrace in Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by Ariel Ogden.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

Wajdi Mouawad’s Scorched is a play about memory and trauma, which leads to the desire to transcend suffering and to find grace. The play is also the story of a Christian woman named Nawal befriending a Muslim woman named Sawda, and the unbreakable bond that develops between them. As the son of Lebanese immigrants who were forced to leave their native homeland in the 1940s and 1950s, I was drawn to the play because it was written by a Lebanese-Quebecois son of Lebanese immigrants who, themselves, were forced to emigrate during the horrific 1975-1991 civil war. Although I have never met him, Mr. Mouawad and I share a tragic and difficult history. Both of our families have been witness to unimaginable carnage and, in many ways, that post-trauma has driven both of us to create theatre.

Mouawad was born to a Lebanese Christian family in 1968 and I was born to a Lebanese Druze family in 1972. During the rehearsal process I realized that, had his parents and my parents remained in Lebanon, it was entirely possible that we might have fought in that civil war, pitted against one another. In his recollections, Mouawad writes that, after the Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt was assassinated in 1977, everyone in his village danced for joy. “I didn’t know the guy, but I danced on the occasion of the man’s death!” he says. “I was happy, because we had been taught that the Druze were all evil.” Growing up I heard similar hateful sentiments by some Druze directed against other Lebanese Christians and Muslims.

Can directing a play about such an overwhelming calamity do anything positive, or is it ultimately an obscenely futile gesture that changes nothing? In this time of rising prejudice, nativism, and demonization of refugees and immigrants, a play like Scorched can be more than just an absurd attempt to create art in the face of destruction. Scorched calls upon us to develop a radical empathy for those who are suffering and dying in warzones worldwide. After all, what is theatre for if not to help us overcome ourselves? In the play, Nawal tells Nihad,

You and I come from the same land, the same language, the same history, and each land, each language, each history is responsible for its people, and each people is responsible for their traitors and their heroes. Responsible for their executioners and their victims, for their victories and their defeats. In this sense, I am responsible for you, and you are responsible for me.

Because we did not have to fight a war, Wajdi and I created theatre. In this way, we are connected artistically and spiritually. By complete coincidence, I am responsible for him and he is responsible for me. Ultimately, it is this shared responsibility for others that inspires me as a director to return to the theatre, and what makes plays like Scorched so important in these troubled times.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, adapted by Jon Jory, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by University Theatre. Production Run: November 7-22, 2014 at the University of Oregon Robinsion Theatre, Eugene, Oregon.

The ensemble of Pride and Prejudice. Photo: Pam Cressall.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

This production of Pride and Prejudice is meant to be a departure from previous versions adapted from the novel for television and stage. The reasons for this are manifold. First, we haven’t the time, budget, or cast to attempt to recreate the magnificent 1995 BBC miniseries directed by Simon Langton and starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. Second, it was important to me that our production would not feel as dated as the 1940 version. That production had a first-rate cast, but the stylistic choices by director Robert Z. Leonard were both anachronistic and somewhat risible (though Olivier and Garson were incomparable). The most recent film, directed Joe Wright, brought a fresher and more contemporary sense and sensibility to the novel and contained strong performances by Kiera Knightly, Matthew Macfadyen, and Rosamund Pike.

Our chosen script was adapted by Jon Jory, the former artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and the founder of the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Jory brings theatricality and brevity to the script, two aspects that I was most interested in preserving for our particular production. I appreciate Jory’s sense of metatheatricality, use of double casting, concision, and pacing. The adaptation was made by a playwright for the theatre rather than slavishly copying the novel for the stage.

In thinking about Pride and Prejudice, several important factors stood out for me as a director. The first was that our protagonist, Elizabeth, is an extraordinary woman for her times. Unlike her sister and friends, she refuses to accept the notion that one should marry for the sake of shelter or comfort. Elizabeth shows us that there were women in that period that married out of choice, and that choice is hers and hers alone. In a time when women had few options available to them, Elizabeth shows that her personal happiness is paramount and that she will not acquiesce to those who expect her to marry for wealth or status. That, along with the fact that she is able to “properly humble” Mr. Darcy, makes her a heroine for the ages. Likewise, Darcy learns that he must break with traditions that have imprisoned him in a world of pride and conceit. In many ways, Darcy is among the first to rebel against the classist system in England that has gradually broken down for centuries now.

You will notice that we’ve made some specific choices that deviate from Regency-era verisimilitude. This was done consciously and with intent. I invite you to view this less as a faithful “period drama” and more as a work of what I call “neo-Regency” aesthetic. In other words, we have made choices that retain the spirit of the Regency era but with a decidedly contemporary view. We hope this helps you, the audience, to enjoy the Pride and Prejudice you’ve read and loved and, perhaps, to appreciate it anew.

Ecstasy: A Water Fable by Denmo Ibrahim, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by University Theatre. Production Run: March 6-16, 2014 at the University of Oregon Hope Theatre, Eugene, Oregon.

The acting ensemble of Ecstasy: A Water Fable by Denmo Ibrahim, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by Ariel Ogden.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

“We were brought into this world in order to realize who we are and, having discovered that reality, to live accordingly while on earth…To be human in the full sense is to be able to realize the Truth and become fully immersed in its light.”

—Seyyed Hossein Nasr

I chose to direct Ecstasy: A Water Fable because it was one of the most poetic, beautiful, and non-linear scripts I had read in years. Ibrahim’s play, based on the Sufi tale “When the Waters Were Changed,” introduces us to a triptych of characters separated by time and space, but who are all deeply interconnected. These three stories include the Pipeman and his community, Picture Lady, Mona and her lover Jack/John. In the preface for the play, Ibrahim writes, “This story is a search into origin—into the original.”  This theme ties directly into the Sufi notion of humanity’s desire for re-connection with the source of universal divine love often called “the Beloved.” Sufi scholar Ali Jihad Racy writes about the concept of “cosmic unity” or “divine love” in Sufism: “The human soul, which derives from the Divine Source, may yearn to return to, or to relive, prior experiences of its place of origin.” All three of the major characters in Ecstasy: A Water Fable wish to return to, or to relive, their experiences with their own origins.  For Pipeman, it is to reconnect with God; for Picture Lady, it is a reconnection with her daughter; for Mona, it is a reconnection with her family and traditions. In each story we see reflections of ourselves and our yearning for connection, be it spiritual, filial, romantic, or internal.  The play takes us on a journey in search of that invaluable something that we’ve all lost along the way in our lives.

Each of the characters is exiled either by choice or by circumstances. Pipeman refuses to drink the waters that have changed, and in doing so he becomes an outcast. Picture Lady refuses to live a traditional life and, by doing so, is left alone in her world of pictures and memories. She tells us, “I am the last living person of my family.  The only one left who still remembers.” Mona is an outcast in her own life—she doesn’t even go by her birth name Nourhan (“light of the sun”). Instead, she opts for the name Mona because “it’s easier to say.”  She, like many biculturals living today, opts to assimilate and “pass” rather than cling to her traditions. By doing so, she is tortured by her disconnection with everything she’s known. This manifests itself in her insomnia, her disconnection with Jack/John, and the loss of her child.

These three characters are desperately trying to re-member their lives through pictures, prayer, and love.  Ibrahim writes about this remembrance:

We can see remnants of it in how we walk, or the way we dress, even in the types of lovers we are drawn to.  We can even see it in the face of our parents.  When you look openly into their face, can you see the flickering image of your great grandparents?  In the brilliance of my mothers’ eyes I have seen the aspirations, haunts, and the secrets of my ancestors.  We always have access to the original face, the fundamental story, the heart of what connects us all.   

Another way this remembrance occurs is through music and song. In the Sufi tradition music, lyrics, and dance are catalysts for the ecstasy that is associated with spiritual yearning.  The musicians play in order to place a dancer into a trance, so they may achieve a state of spiritual transcendence. Accordingly, music and voice are vital parts of this production. Picture Lady tells us, “Terrible to lose your birthsong. They say you wander through all eternity aimless, hungry, and lost.” The play asks us to remember our own personal birth-songs—those songs that comfort us, define us, and guide us back home when we are adrift. Ibrahim asks us:

Where do you come from?  What do you remember?  Is that your story or theirs?  How can you ever really tell?  We have been preceded by a great lineage of teachers who love us.  They have not forgotten us even if we have forgotten them.

As you watch this performance, we ask that you join us in this search of remembrance. We ask that you give yourself over to the music, the text, the song, and the experience. If you are given an offering, we ask that you accept it. Trust that we, like you, are souls on a long journey to find that place of origin, that place where we can once again become one with our own Beloved—whatever or whomever that may be. 

9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by University Theatre. Production Run: March 7-17, 2013 at the University of Oregon Hope Theatre, Eugene, Oregon.

The acting ensemble of 9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by Ariel Ogden.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

“When we hate someone, and are angry at her, it is because we do

not understand her or the circumstances she comes from. By

practicing deep looking, we realize that if we grew up like her,

in her set of circumstances and in her environment, we would be

just like her. That kind of understanding removes your anger, and

suddenly that person is no longer your enemy. Then you can love

her. As long as she remains an enemy, love is impossible.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

Taming the Tiger Within

            Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire presents us with the lives of Iraqi women, all of whom have been scarred by war.  2013 marks the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and U.K. forces, and we present this play as a tribute to all the innocents who were lost or maimed in that war.  Despite the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in December 2011, America still retains a sizeable presence there, and great problems still exist.  According to Anna Mulrine of The Christian Science Monitor, “Violence in Iraq from July to October hit its highest level in two years, a discouraging sign one year after the last US military vehicles exited the country and prompts questions about whether the situation on the ground in Iraq jeopardizes America’s national security interests.” From July to October 2012, 854 Iraqi civilians have been killed and 1,640 have been wounded.  Up to 122,000 civilians were killed during the Iraq War. The U.S. presence in Iraq remains large, despite the withdrawal.  The Embassy of the United States in Baghdad is the largest and most expensive embassy in the world, and 45,000 U.S. troops are still stationed in Iraq. Regarding U.S. troops, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left 6,656 dead, more than 1,700 wounded, almost 130,000 with post-traumatic stress disorder, and more than 235,000 with traumatic brain injury. There are over 280,000 Iraqi refugees registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in neighboring countries, and there are undetermined others that remain unregistered.In addition, 1.5 million Iraqis remain internally displaced.

The list of statistics would fill this entire program, but I prefer that, instead of looking at hard, cold numbers, we choose to focus on the humans who have suffered in this ongoing conflict—namely the women and children.  This play gives voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.  Inspired by Raffo’s 1993 visit to her ancestral homeland, 9 Parts of Desire reminds us that there is no such thing as “collateral damage” or “smart bombs.”  Instead, we know that no matter how “just” the war or how “surgical” the operation, there is always death, destruction, and the shattering of human lives left in the wake of wars.  It is shocking how little we Americans know about the lives of the Iraqi people despite the fact that we occupied that country for eight years and continue to have such a presence there to this day. 

Raffo is clear that,“with rare exception, these stories are not told verbatim.  Most are composites, and although each character is based in fact and research, I consider all the women in my play to be dramatized characters in a poetic story.”   Some characters are based on historical figures while others are not.  For instance, Layal is based on the Iraqi artist Layla Al-Attar, who was killed along with her husband and housekeeper when a U.S. bomb destroyed her house in 1993.  Umm Ghada is based on Umm Greyda, a woman who lost eight children in the bombing at the Amiriyya Bomb Shelter.  The other characters represent different aspects of Iraqi society: doctors, children, Bedouins, Iraqi exiles, and Iraqi Americans.  The Doctor’s monologue about birth defects caused by use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus used by coalition forces is factual and has been well documented by many news organizations.   

The women in this play are all seeking peace in both their country and within themselves.  The play asks us to look past our preconceptions and prejudices and to encounter these women and girls as human beings with the same aspirations, difficulties, and desires that all of us share.  If the theatre teaches us anything, it is that only through empathy and compassion can we truly understand another human being.  Raffo’s words help to remind us that there is a common humanity that transcends the politics, borders, and ideologies that separate us.  Perhaps, through works like these, we can remember those who never had the opportunity to know a world without war.

Arabian Nights by Dominic Cook, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by University Theatre. Production Run: March 7-17, 2013 at the University of Oregon Hope Theatre, Eugene, Oregon.

The ensemble of Arabian Nights, directed by Michael Malek Najjar.

Director’s Program Note by Michael Malek Najjar

What you are about to experience is not Arabian Nights.  Instead, what you are about to see is our interpretation of Arabian Nights.  These stories are ancient, handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation, and finally written down and compiled by many historians, academics, orientalists, and dramatists.  The difficulty lies in the fact that these stories were transformed over time—sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. 

In the academic setting, as theatre practitioners and scholars, we constantly strive to reconcile our research and our practice.  During the term when this play was being conceived, I was teaching Edward Said’s seminal book Orientalism.  In it, Said writes about how orientalist writings and teachings created an artificial distinction between “the Orient” (the East), and “the Occident” (the West).  Orientalist writing was also a way to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient.  In many ways, the tales of the Arabian Nights, as they’ve been handed down to us by French and British orientalists, have only perpetuated our view of the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia as mysterious, timeless, strange, and utterly foreign to our ourselves.  In their writings, teachings, and artworks, the orientalists succeeded in creating an “Oriental other” which we still view as exotic, dangerous, and contrary to “our” values.

When I was asked what I wished to direct for this year’s University Theatre season, I looked for scripts that had a strong female protagonist, required a large ensemble cast, and with potential for great stagecraft.  After looking over many scripts, I found Dominic Cooke’s Royal Shakespeare Company adaptation of Arabian Nights.  There have been several interesting adaptations of these tales recently, such as Mary Zimmerman’s Arabian Nights, Hanan al-Shaykh’s One Thousand and One Nights, and Jason Grote’s contemporary version titled, 1001.  I opted for the version you’ll see here for a few reasons: its humor, its theatricality, and its depiction of normal people who go through extraordinary circumstances.  What you will not see are flying carpets, snake charmers, sexualized belly dancers, and smoke-filled harems.  What you will see are rich people and poor people, good people and bad people, going through dramatic and comedic circumstances—just as you would in plays from any culture.  Even when fantastical things occur, they are told through stories so even their veracity is questionable.

We’ve worked hard to incorporate the best of “Western” theatrical techniques with “Eastern” stories.  My design team and I have tried to make specific decisions that are theatrical while avoiding the traps of other historical Arabian Nights productions.  (In other words, if you’ve come to see a stage version of Disney’s Alladin, you will most definitely be disappointed!)  What we ask is that you enjoy this play not for its “exotic” or its “Oriental” nature.  Instead, experience this production like you would any other—for the sheer joy of coming to the theatre, of having a communal experience, and sharing in the trials and tribulations that we, as humans, have dealt with since we heard the very first storyteller whisper the word “Listen!”     

The Love of the Nightingale by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by Portland Community College. Production Run: Winter 2007 at the Sylvania Performing Arts Center, Portland, Oregon.

Madeline Burchet McClure in The Love of the Nightingale, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by James Hill.

Urinetown by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by Portland Community College. Production Run: Winter 2006 at the Sylvania Performing Arts Center, Portland, Oregon.

Donzelle Richardson (Hope Cladwell), Chris Green (Caldwell B. Cladwell) and Nartan Woods (Bobby Strong) in Urinetown: The Musical, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by James Hill.

The Man Who Had All the Luck by Arthur Miller, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by Portland Community College. Production Run: Spring 2006 at the Sylvania Performing Arts Center, Portland, Oregon.

Brian Culp, Kambiz Kolkoo, and Libby Anderson in The Man Who Had All the Luck, directed by Michael Malek Najjar

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by Portland Community College. Production Run: Winter 2005 at the Sylvania Performing Arts Center, Portland, Oregon.

Veronica Everett as Hermione and Brian Culp as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by James Hill

Nora by Ingmar Bergman, Directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Produced by Portland Community College. Production Run: Fall 2004 at the Sylvania Performing Arts Center, Portland, Oregon.

Michaelyn Perdue as Nora Helmer and Noel Thomas as Torvald in Nora, directed by Michael Malek Najjar. Photo by James HIll.

%d bloggers like this: