WRITTEN BY LEILA BUCK
I took my first international flight in the womb.
That is the truth -- and the first line of my first play.
Throughout my life I have had the opportunity to witness how seemingly different lives, cultures and realities exist simultaneously - and the privilege of moving between them.
As the daughter of a Lebanese mother from a mixed Muslim and Christian family and an American diplomat father, I grew up living between Kuwait, Oman, Iraq, Canada and the U.S. When my father was posted in Baghdad at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, we survived scud missiles regularly until I was evacuated. Barely two years later, from the safety of our new home in Canada, I watched our country bomb the neighborhood in which we had lived. Later, as an undergrad in the U.S., I visited my parents on breaks in Saudi Arabia.
My advisor prompted me to write about these experiences – and my first play was born.
Performing ISite across the U.S. and Europe for over ten years, I learned that people listen differently when you tell them a story – and that the heightened yet intimate space of theater has the power to move us beyond entrenched perceptions and shift, if just for a moment, how we see ourselves, each other, and our world.
I have worked as an actor, writer and educator through many years of misrepresentation and fear of Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., and perceived, contrived, and real conflicts between the cultures that shaped me.
I have also experienced firsthand how as Americans, the stories we believe and pass on can affect our actions and with them, lives both here and across the world.
So I write with a lot of hyphens -- an instinct to connect things that might otherwise seem distant, and to create a dialogue between them and with audiences that explores both the uniqueness of our experiences and the relationships between them.
In July 2006, I took my husband, an atheist from a secular Jewish family, to meet my family in Lebanon for the first time. We partied in Beirut for a week and then the Israeli-Hezbollah war began -- and suddenly we were being bombed by the Israeli military in my mother’s country, with weapons manufactured and paid for by ours.
We escaped to Damascus, where we were hosted by the parents of my collaborator and friend Maha Chehlaoui and by renowned Syrian director Naila Al Atrash, who I had worked with in NY thanks to Catherine Coray’s HotInk festival. We spent two weeks seeing Syria and were welcomed by people from Aleppo to Palmyra with a hospitality and generosity that were deeply moving.
In The Crossing began as a series of emails written between air strikes to friends and colleagues about what we were witnessing - a point of view less widely seen in American media coverage.
When I came “home”, unsure what that meant anymore, I began crafting a solo storytelling performance about our experience, doing readings across the U.S. with support from The Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, Epic, the Lark, Silk Road, Theater J, Queens Theatre in the Park, and a host of conferences and cultural centers from the Brooklyn Museum to Chautauqua Institution.
In the talkbacks that followed each reading, my longtime director-collaborator Shana Gold and I soon realized that the most palpable conflict was not the one in the story, but the one in the audience about how I should tell it -- and the questions this raised for me as a playwright and performer.
I found myself facing demands from some audience members about what should be included from a perspective defending Israel’s actions in the war, in order to “balance” mine. Others, often progressive Jews, told me to ignore those voices, and to stick to my story- particularly since the average American had had more exposure to Israeli narratives of the conflict than Arab ones.
I felt conflicted. I had already made sure to portray the love and compassion of Adam’s Jewish family and our Israeli friends. But I wasn’t Israeli nor had I been to Israel at the time. So was it my job to represent the Israeli perspective? If so, which one? And how could I do so authentically without compromising my own?
At the same time, I didn’t want to dismiss or alienate those in my audiences who had engaged with me and my story deeply enough to wrestle with their discomfort and mixed feelings, and to share them with me.
Their questions raised larger ones about artistic freedom and responsibility:
How do we own our own truths and still allow room for others?
How do we hold ourselves and each other accountable for the power of stories to shape perceptions, especially of peoples and places that are mis- and under-represented?
Where do our personal experiences inform the work in critically useful ways? And where do those same experiences create blind spots, assumptions, and biases that must be challenged?
So I decided to write those questions into the play – adding other actors** to represent key dissenting voices, and my own struggle amidst them to find and hold my own.
Through a structure that combines storytelling, dramatic scenes, and improvisation, the audience is invited to become the fifth character in the play, whose responses, questions, and participation help shape a continually evolving journey.
As we performed In the Crossing in various communities over six years, our audiences helped us realize that it was really about how we face the things that divide us with the people we love – and how the stories we choose to believe and pass on come to shape who we are.
Because of my father’s job as a US diplomat, and the Lebanese law that does not allow mothers to pass on citizenship to their children, I was legally forbidden to visit Lebanon throughout the war there during my childhood.
I registered that loss only later, when I began to form my own relationship to my mother’s country and become more fluent in Arabic. And as my mother’s mother began losing her memory, I began writing a play to attempt to hold on to it, to her, and to Lebanon.
I performed Hkeelee (Talk to Me) in Arabic and English in fall 2015 in Tunisia, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and at Arena Stage last May thanks to Ari Roth and Mosaic Theater. What was moving in sharing it with audiences both “here” and “there” was how people were connecting our stories with their own, and with the larger themes of who and what we love enough to let go, to re-invent, or to carry with us no matter where we go.
I am currently developing three new pieces that ask artists and audiences to explore what it means to be(come) American.
The first is an exploration of my father’s time as a diplomat in Arab countries and my relationship to it.
The goal is to use the experiences of our mixed (up) family to spark engagement with the connections and conflicts between the US and the “Middle East” – and to explore the rhetoric and realities of democracy, religion, fear, security, and freedom.
The second piece, American Dreams and Arabian Nights, is an ensemble performance that weaves storytelling, theatrical scenes, dream sequences and immersive participation to create an interactive dialogue that asks the audience how we decide who to trust; what one must know, promise, and believe in order to call a place home; and how those choices come to shape us as individuals, communities, and nations.
I am developing this work with Tamilla Woodard with Queens College/CERRU’s First Draft series and La Guardia Performing Arts Center’s Rough Draft festival. Beginning in January, I will use the piece as a model to develop student work around immigration with one of the most diverse populations in the country at Rutgers, Newark, in collaboration with Tim Raphael, Director of the Center for Migration and the Global City and co-founder and director of The Newest Americans project – and the advisor who first prompted me to write when I was an undergrad.
The third piece, HoUSe, was inspired by a commission from Writing On It All. Thanks to Alex Chasin and Zina Rose Goodall's team, the public was invited to enter an abandoned house on Governor’s Island in ways that evoked the process of entering the US.
After answering TSA-like questions from performers in role*** and on customs forms determining either green or blue identity cards, participants were invited to enter and respond to prompts by making their mark silently on any surface in the house - or choosing not to.
In the process, we engaged in a silent, visual, embodied dialogue about what it means to make a place home.
With each new work, I want to continue to create experiences that combine theatricality and authenticity, the people in the room and events beyond it, with structures built to evolve as actors and audiences engage with multiple perspectives both personal and political, and how their intersections shape who we are.
In August 2015 I was invited by Jayashri Wyatt to shape and present the story of Hanan, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, at UN Headquarters in New York and Geneva. When I visited Beirut that fall, I found Hanan and her children there. We are in touch since then via WhatsApp, often assisted by my cousin Rayya in Beirut.
I exchange messages with Hanan’s children when they get ahold of her phone, their lifeline to the world. They send me emoticons and pictures of flowers and messages that say “Keefik Khaltoo? Shta’naylik!” “How are you auntie? We miss you!”
Hanan is doing all she can to give her children what their bright voices deserve.
But right now her family's survival, and so many others, depends on the kind of care her people once showed me.
If you would like to help Hanan and her family, please consider following this link, and spreading the word:
The last lines of my first play are:
“Sometimes I feel like the ocean. It’s touching so many shores at once that forms the shape of who I am.
That’s what home is I guess – wherever you make contact with the earth.
And every time I touch down in new soil, I see myself for the first time.”
I believe we all learn something every time we connect with a new place – whether it is through travel, or interaction with those who come from somewhere that seems unfamiliar.
For me, those moments are a reminder that the distance between “here” and “there” is often shorter than we think. And that even when the journey is long and painful, it is possible to reach the other side.
At a time when so much of the world is dividing further into “us” and “them”, theater offers something that feels more essential than ever:
The opportunity to connect with people, places and ideas we might never encounter otherwise, in a space where we can, with a little imagination, breathe together.
That, for me, and I hope for many others, is one way of finding home.
LEILA BUCK is a Lebanese American writer, performer and intercultural educator who has lived and worked in 22 countries. A State Department Speaker Specialist and Cultural Envoy, she has performed and taught theatrical tools for literacy, conflict resolution and cross-cultural communication for youth, educators and other professionals all over the world. As artist-in-residence for Wesleyan University’s Doris Duke Foundation Building Bridges grant, she taught and created In Between, a theatrical community dialogue exploring student experiences with the (mis)representation of Muslims in the U.S.. Writer/Performer: HKEELEE (Talk to Me) –(Mosaic Theater-Arena Stage); In the Crossing (Public Theater New Work Now!; Culture Project –WCS). Actor: Aftermath (NYTW/Tour -Drama League nomination); Scorched (Wilma Theater-Barrymore Award) The Admission (Theatre J, Studio Theatre). Publication: Innovation in Five Acts; Etching Our Own Image: Voices from the Arab American Art Movement; Four Arab-American Plays. M.A./Adjunct professor, Participatory Performance and Civic Engagement: NYU. www.leilabuck.com
**In the Crossing was written in collaboration with Adam Abel, Yuval Boim, Adam Green, Kathryn Grody, Kathryn Kates, Lameece Issaq and Maya Serhan.
***Performers for HoUSe were: Danny Bryck, Nanker Fetchit, Mari Vial-Golden, Chelsea Gregory, and Rukiya Juraeva.
FIRST: In the Crossing, Culture Project - Women Center Stage, March 2011, Photo by Hunter Canning Photography
SECOND: Workshop in interactive storytelling, Sfax, Tunisia, Fall 2015, Photo by Hafedh Zanina, US Embassy Tunisia
THIRD: In the Crossing, Culture Project - Women Center Stage, March 2011, Photo by Hunter Canning Photography
FOURTH: In the Crossing, Culture Project - Women Center Stage, March 2011, Photo by Hunter Canning Photography
FIFTH: Hkeelee (Talk to Me), Mosaic Theater at Arena Stage, May 2016, Photo by Stan Barouh Photography
SIXTH: HoUSe, Governor's Island June 2016, Photo by Stephanie Orentas for Writing On It All.
SEVENTH: Workshop in theatrical tools for developing writing and English skills, Franklin Center, Tunisia, Fall 2015, Photo by Hafedh Zanina, US Embassy Tunisia
HEADSHOT: Leila Buck, Photo by Meredith Zimmerman
BLOG SALON CURATOR
Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect.