Six Syrian actors battled a fraught US visa process to tread the boards in New York this week, seeking to impress on American theater goers the human cost of a war raging halfway round the world.
Nothing could be further from the typical summer entertainment in this city of flamboyant wealth and consumption, sizzling under a July heatwave and thousands of miles from the horrors unfolding in Syria.
Yet the US premiere of “While I Was Waiting” won a standing ovation from New Yorkers moved Wednesday by the realization that those trapped by the war are ordinary people just like them.
“Anyone in New York is going to understand the characters immediately,” said Sam Sacks, a 37-year-old writer who was at the opening night at the annual Lincoln Center Festival.
“They seem like people who could be our neighbors here.”
The play tells the story of Taim, a young filmmaker left in a coma after being beaten at a Damascus checkpoint, and how his mother, sister, girlfriend and other friends react to his plight.
As the characters grapple with past hurts and brutal realities, the drama spotlights how their middle-class lives have been upended by the now six-year conflict that has killed more than 320,000 people.
The Arabic-language play, with English subtitles, seeks to dive behind grisly media headlines about gas attacks, beheadings, and a repressive regime to show a more human perspective.
A kiss shared on stage, love of music, hiding a joint from a visiting mother and liberated young women may surprise some who harbor stereotypes about life in a Muslim-majority Arab country.
“It just confirmed that we’re all humans and we’re in this boat together. It doesn’t seem to have a resolution, I hope it will soon,” said Henrietta Gwaltney, a New York social worker.
The four-night production brings six actors as well as additional Syrian crew members to New York. Ultimately, only one technical member of the group was denied a US visa.
Written by playwright Mohammad Al Attar, the play premiered in Brussels last year and has already toured Europe and Japan. Its US run lasts until Saturday.
Nanda Mohammad, one of the actresses, sees New York as a two-fold experience — showcasing Syrian artistry in a city with little knowledge of it, and making a political statement to challenge stereotypes.
“I’m not sure if we can make any change… But at the end I think it’s essential to do it,” she told AFP.
“You must do good art, or there’s no reason to do it, and the people must enjoy it, even if it’s about Syria.”
“I’m really amazed by the American people,” says Mohammad, who currently lives in Egypt. “I think they are nicer than I imagined.”
Festival director Nigel Redden believed the tale would resonate with New York theater goers, not least in a city hostile to the policies of President Donald Trump.
“This year it seemed particularly right to look at current events,” he said. “We need to see the human side of what is going on in Syria.”
The Lincoln Center initiated the visa applications around the time Trump announced his first travel ban on visa-holders from Syria and six other Muslim majority countries.
Director Omar Abusaada, who lives in Damascus and visited the United States in 2010, called it “the most hard process for a visa, ever.”
But if he worries that US audiences have a distorted impression of Syria, twisted by a media too focused on President Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State extremist group, he worries even more that Syrians at home are losing hope that art can make a difference.
“They don’t hope that much from the world outside,” he told AFP.
“I still really believe that’s important, but I think for the majority of Syrians who are inside Syria, this is not important anymore.”
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