New Palestinian-Syrian play 'Desert of Light' premieres at PMA in September

August 26, 2016


Cornell University’s Department of Performing and Media Arts (PMA) presents Desert of Light, a black tragicomedy by Palestinian-Syrian writer Rama Haydar. The play was co-translated from the Arabic by the playwright and PMA Assistant Professor Rebekah Maggor, who also directs. Performances are September 22, 23, 24 at 7:30 p.m. and September 24 at 2:00 p.m. in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts Flex Theatre.

Set outside Damascus in the Yarmouk refugee camp, Desert of Light reveals the tragic absurdity of the Syrian civil war. As a brutal siege rages outside, two Palestinian-Syrian refugees in their mid-twenties, Guy A and Guy B, debate the best plan of escape and eventually come to blows over the meaning of love, resistance, and exile. With surprising humor and devastating candor, Desert of Light offers an intimate and boldly critical perspective on the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East.

In discussing her choice to translate and direct Desert of Light, Maggor cites her interest in new play development, particularly plays by women writers, noting that “Rama Haydar is an extraordinarily talented young writer coming out of a rich tradition of political drama in Syria. Her language is sharp and theatrical and her characters are vivid and unexpected.”

Beyond Haydar’s critical dissection of current events in Syria, her play makes “unlikely connections between Palestinian experiences of war, exile, occupation, and immigration and a growing global canon of the drama of displacement,” says Maggor, who hopes that American audiences will see these Palestinian-Syrian characters as “both unique individuals entangled in personal and historically specific struggles, but also as representatives of a diverse underclass of men and women around the world.”

The multimedia production, which combines drama, poetry, dance, and live music, is part of the Cornell Council of the Arts (CCA) 2016 Biennial, the focus of which is the cultural production of empathy. Desert of Light is also the first production in PMA’s year-long season of works by female playwrights.

The show features choreography by Byron Suber (Senior Lecturer, PMA), original composition and live performance by Ithaca-based musicians Dara Anissi and Max Buckholtz, scenic design by Kent Goetz (Professor, PMA), lighting design by Edward Intemann (Senior Lecturer, PMA), sound design by Warren Cross (Senior Lecturer, PMA), costumes by Sarah Eckert Bernstein (Senior Lecturer, PMA), stage management by Howard Klein, direction of production and events by Pam Lillard, and technical direction by Dick Archer (Associate Professor, PMA).

Each performance will be followed by a post-show panel discussion with Haydar in conversation with Maggor, and a different Cornell faculty member or guest scholar. The panel discussions will offer political and cultural contexts for the play, including analysis of the Syrian refugee experience in particular and the long-term global crisis of migration and displaced persons in general, and an exploration of the landscape of contemporary Arab drama within a comparative perspective of recent international drama in translation. Panelists include Deborah Starr (Associate Professor of Modern Arabic and Hebrew Literature and Film in the Department of Near Eastern Studies), Bruce Levitt (Professor, PMA), Mostafa Minawi (Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative), and guest scholars Marvin Carlson (Distinguished Professor of Theatre, CUNY), and Antje Oegel (founder of the New York-based theatre agency AO International). Moderators include Sara Warner (Associate Professor, PMA) and Nick Salvato (Associate Professor & Chair, PMA).

The student cast brings together graduate and undergraduate students from a wide range of programs and disciplines: Tatyana Carrillo ’18 (English & PMA), Naomie Castin ’17 (Biology and Society & PMA), Jacob Hunter ’18 (Independent Study: Biomechanical Engineering), J. Michael Kinsey ’19 (Theatre Arts PhD), Serena Lotreck ’19 (Biological Sciences), Danyal Motiwalla ’19 (undeclared), Julia Shebek ’19 (undeclared), Matthew Shortell ’17 (Psychology), Michael Southworth ’18 (PMA), Mwangi Thuita ’17 (Government, History and Philosophy), Irving Torres ’18 (Industrial Labor Relations), and Elly Valastro ’17 (PMA).

An excerpt of Desert of Light was first performed at the forum Theatre Between Home and Exile: New Palestinian Voices, as part of the ReOrient Festival in San Francisco, 2015, co-produced by Theatre Without Borders. This forum and the translation of Desert of Light were supported by a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation’s Building Bridges Program.

Rama Haydar