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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
The Black Eyed

I may be inarticulate.
Have always been.
It's not that I'm not thinking clear thoughts,
I'm thinking too many of them.
— The Architect
Lameece Issaq, Jeanine Serralles & Emily Swallow in Black-Eyed
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Somewhere toward the middle of The Black Eyed by Betty Shamieh that opened last night at New York Theater Workshop, both play and production seem to receive an electrical charge. The writing becomes vivid, and the production receives a jolt of energy from the unique, imaginative, funny performance of Jeanine Serralles. Until then, however, the play meanders didactically, and the cast of four women struggle to elicit passion and humor from this tiresome work.
One wishes the play were stronger, because the issues Shamieh tackles are certainly worth dramatizing. Set in a taffy-pink heaven, The Black Eyed involves three Palestinian women from different historical periods who, for a variety of reasons, wish to enter a room specially reserved for martyrs. There is the sexual biblical heroine Delilah (Emily Swallow), who saved the Philistines by cutting off Samson's hair, depriving him of his strength; Tamam (Lameece Issaq), during the Medieval religious Crusades, was raped in front of her brother by Europeans aiming to take Jerusalem from the Muslims; and there is The Architect (Serralles), who died on one of the planes that was flown into the World Trade Center. Apparently guarding the entrance to this (unseen) room of martyrs is a Palestinian suicide bomber named Aiesha (Aysan Celik), who blew herself up, killing a Palestinian child in the process.

"Unanswered questions, /Unquestioned answers," Aiesha says to the audience at the beginning, and dutiful theatergoers that we are, we strive for the next 85 minutes to decipher the questions and answers buried within Shamieh's mostly pseudo-poetic text.. Questions like: who are the real martyrs here—-men and women who kill in the name of religion or ethnic identity, or women who suffer while the carnage goes on? And what do you say or do when your fellow countryman/woman undertakes a horrific act and in so doing hurts his/her own people?

But until The Architect's sequence comes along, Shamieh's writing is so stilted—so intent on making its sometimes self-evident points—that one gradually begins to tune out. Fortunately The Architect's words pose a human problem as well as an intellectual one. At 30 years old, this bright, skilled woman still lives with her family,still is a virgin, for she believes in adhering to her culture's tenets about the proper conduct for unmarried daughters. However, she is disturbingly aware that the Arab man in whose office she works one summer, and about whom she fantasizes, offers a mixed cultural blessing: sex, but no promise of fidelity; a home, but one in which she would exchange designing buildings for raising children and supporting her husband's career. At 35, she decides that at least she will lose her virginity, but finds herself, awfully and ironically, on a weapon headed for the twin towers.

The Architect's story, told directly to the audience, contains a theatrical mixture of feeling, thought and humor, and Jeanine Serralles extracts every scintilla she can find. Her agile body, coupled with a voice that carries subtle degrees of emotion and irony, create a liveliness sorely missing from the rest of the production. The director, Sam Gold, has tried to lighten the play's overbearing seriousness—there is Paul Steinberg's amusing pink set, and the cast often attempts to mine humor and spirit from their lines. But finally the production comes up against the wall of the play's static, quasi-poetic writing, and there is no help for it.

The Black Eyed
Written by Betty Shamieh
Directed by Sam Gold
With Aysan Celik (Aiesha); Lameece Issaq (Tamam); Jeanine Serralles (The Architect); Emily Swallow (Delilah).
Scenic Design: Paul Steinberg
Costume Design: Gabriel Berry
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, 212-239-6200
Tuesday 7:00pm, Wednesday — Friday 8:00pm., Saturday 3:00pm, Sunday 2:00 and 7:00pm.
Tickets: $50. T
Reviewed by Alexis Greene, based on July 31, 2007 performance.
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