May 1, 2017  •  4 minute read

by Heather Raffo, Arab American National Museum (AANM) My residency at The Arab American National Museum (AANM) felt like coming home. I was born and raised in Michigan but have not lived there for over twenty years. I did not grow up in the Dearborn/Detroit area, nor did I grow up in the heart of a Middle Eastern community. Having the opportunity to do a residency directly inside this community and at the prestigious AANM was an experience like no other. It was both familiar and new. My father was born in Iraq, my mother in Battle Creek, Michigan. I have lived my whole life balancing the two cultures into which I was born, and have always felt like a hybrid of sorts, half in one world, and half in another.  However, being at the museum felt like the place I was meant to be; where each exhibit – each book in the bookstore – spoke to me from this same landscape. Most importantly, through the museum I was able to connect with other artists and community members through a shared vision that would help me take my next step with my own work. As a playwright and actor, I came to the museum at a vital moment in the development of my new play, NOURA. NOURA is a play about awakening and the search for sacrament. It follows an Iraqi family whose members have become American citizens and now live in New York. The characters have forged a successful life in their new city, some comfortably, some very uncomfortably. But when a young refugee from Mosul enters their lives, she upends both their past and their present. Through two very different generations, NOURA explores an acutely relevant awakening of female identity as characters fight to either remake themselves, or find themselves. I had been working on NOURA already for a few years, with research and workshop residencies in New York City and at Georgetown, in D.C. Although I research my plays heavily, and knew the facts in the piece were true, I had not yet had an opportunity to see how the play spoke to a Middle Eastern, primarily non-theater-going audience. My goals for this residency were to take a leap with the script and to see what specifically would challenge or resonate with the community it was being written about, namely a refugee/immigrant Iraqi community, inclusive of both Muslims and Christians. Most specifically, I was hoping to get the Iraqi Chaldean, Christian, community to this play as the lead character hails from Mosul and is herself Chaldean. The largest Chaldean community outside Iraq resides in Michigan. Because Chaldeans do not consider themselves Arab, it had previously been a struggle for the museum to get Chaldeans to participate in their events. I hoped NOURA would be able to bridge this divide. However, I was also interested in tapping the greater community of Dearborn. It is known in theatrical circles that overall, Middle Eastern Americans are not, according to stereotype, regular theatre-goers. If we could get them to turn out, this would prove an invaluable opportunity for me to receive their unedited feedback: feedback from refugees and immigrants who have never seen theater, but have lived lives similar to those in the play. As an artist I feel it is imperative to not simply “workshop” plays through theaters and theater audiences, but to find an alternative language of response that is not that of a regular theater going audience. This kind of feedback deeply changes a play and a writer. It is something I am constantly in pursuit of, especially as the voice of Middle Eastern America theater is forging its own landscape. Through the many connections of the AANM I was able to meet with poets, writers, an order of Chaldean nuns, a group of high school students, local radio hosts and many, many other’s from the Iraqi community. Each offered a lens that helped inform my writing. We had open rehearsals where we invited Iraqi women to comment on the work. It was a week worth of deep conversations, meals, sharing and making connections to the world we were all navigating. Each of these people came to the show and brought friends and family. It was exciting to see so many different and diverse aspects of the Middle Eastern community at the event. Hugely impactful was the talkback we had after the play. It included voices from both the local Muslim and Christian communities. I was touched at how they chose to share their feelings about the play and how much they found they had in common, both claiming the play as “about them.” I was happy to discover ultimately that both communities embraced the play as something dear and close to their own experience. And the new writing I have been able to do since has indeed taken NOURA to its next level. Support for the NPN Performance Residency comes from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
May 2017