By Dana Tanner Kennedy. Dana is the Dramaturgy Associate for the production.
Mona Mansour’s Urge For Going opens with a cacophonous explosion of disputed facts and figures as a Palestinian refugee family attempts to construct a cohesive narrative about the history of Palestine and its relationship to their personal history. As anyone who has studied this subject can attest, the story of Israel and Palestine is a Gordian knot of wars, borders, alliances, reversals, and competing narratives about the same piece of land. The challenge for Mansour was how to make this ongoing conflict palpable as theater.
When she began her research, Mansour sifted through these conflicting details and was confronted with the problem of how to translate the facts of Palestinian history into a dramatic language when, as the character Abir remarks, “each and every point is open for interpretation.” This opening barrage of dialogue, Mansour said, grew out of a need to submerge the audience in this world of contested information. Even the family cannot agree among themselves how to tell their own story. It is a dramatic rendering of a larger debate about which Dr. Edward Said, Palestinian-American literary theorist and advocate for Palestinian rights wrote:
…the problem of writing about and representing—in all senses of the word—Palestinians in some fresh way is part of a much larger problem. For it is not as if no one speaks about or portrays the Palestinians. The difficulty is that everyone, including the Palestinians themselves, speaks a very great deal….At this point, no one writing about Palestine—and indeed, no one going to Palestine—starts from scratch: We have all been there before, whether reading about it, experiencing its millennial presence and power, or actually living there for periods of time. It is a terribly crowded place, almost too crowded for what it is asked to bear by way of history or interpretation of history.
The al-Awahni family embodies Said’s observation. The family speaks a great deal, and their conversations throughout the play are peppered with arguments about what exactly happened. Also spinning around Mansour’s mind were the voices of her Lebanese uncles during a particular argument in which they vociferously and simultaneously dissected the finer points of Lebanese identity. The soundscape of this family debate and her research experiences merged and grew into the opening section of the play entitled “The Noise,” in which the characters continually interrupt and challenge one another’s statements in a tumble of overlapping dialogue. The scene both introduces the characters and immediately establishes the difficulties of pinning down the facts.
At the heart of the play’s noisy debates is, as the title suggests, a longing to leave, and its central conflict between the teenage Jamilla and her father, Adham, stems from opposing ideas about where the various characters should go. Jamilla refuses to be defined by the struggles of the older generation and fervently hopes to leave Lebanon and go to college abroad. Adham and the rest of the family fervently hope to invoke the Right of Return and go back to Palestine. They decide they must remain in the horrific living conditions of the camp on the slim chance that they will once again see their beloved homeland. At the Public’s April 12th Speakers Series post-show discussion, NYU Associate Professor Dr. Helga Tawil-Souri, who shot a documentary in Lebanese refugee camps, explained that this simultaneous sense of hope and hopelessness is especially prevalent there. In Lebanon the refugees have no rights; there is “a political poverty as well as an economic poverty,” she said, and clinging to the hope of the Right of Return is a survival strategy. Mansour said that the conflicting feelings of the characters reflect her own conflicted feelings on the subject, and she assigned those various voices to different members of the family.
As significant as how the story is being told is that the story is being told at all. During the discussion, Barnard Associate Professor Dr. Bashir Abu-Manneh remarked that it is a sign that attitudes are changing in America when one can hear a play about Palestinian refugees in which 1948 is presented as the year of the Nakba, the first devastating mass expulsion of Palestinians from their lands. The events of 1948 are probably more widely known in America as the Israeli War of Independence, and resolving the problem of 1948, Abu-Manneh said, is central to a future peaceful co-existence of Israelis and Palestinians. “The themes of the play are welcome,” he said.
In Urge for Going Mona Mansour transforms a dizzying amount of political history into a compassionate family drama. While the father-daughter struggles of Adham and Jamilla transcend their immediate circumstances, it is Mansour's heartfelt rendering of their relationship that ultimately deepens our understanding of history's effects on the everyday lives of Palestinian refugees.
In the photo above: Tala Ashe and Ramsey Faragallah in URGE FOR GOING, written by Mona Mansour and directed by Hal Brooks. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg.
To hear the full April 12th Speakers Series, click play below: