(This review, first published December 14, 2020, was written about the original livestream run. The production is now streaming on demand through April 25, 2021.)
Woolly Mammoth’s production of This Is Who I Am, written by Amir Nizar Zuabi to be performed live via video conferencing, is a powerfully intimate show. Directed by Evren Odcikin, it features two characters, Dad and Son, talking via Zoom call from their respective kitchens—one in Ramallah in the West Bank, the other in New York—and cooking fteer (a Palestinian flat bread) from a family recipe. It is the perfect blend of technology and dramatic storytelling. Woolly Mammoth is one of five theater companies across the country showing it.
Ramsey Faragallah as Dad and Yousof Sultani as Son both give powerfully emotional performances. From the beginning, the tension between them is obvious, Sultani making some not-so-playful jabs at Faragallah’s cooking while Faragallah gets defensive. Responding to Faragallah’s suggestion that between the two of them, they can “fill the gaps” in what they know of the recipe, Sultani says softly, “That’s an interesting choice of words.” Their situation comes to a boil when Sultani yells, at Faragallah’s liberal use of salt, “I forbid you to add any more salt!” Sultani remembers incidents from his childhood in Palestine, softly but passionately telling a brutal story of violence, betrayal, and his “madness,” while Faragallah, asked if he remembers this, responds, “Vaguely.” As they continue cooking, they begin to share their secrets, Faragallah of how he became “a hero” to the Palestinian resistance, Sultani of why he left and stayed away. By the end, Faragallah cries several times, and Sultani is near tears. Theirs are stories of pain and suffering, but also of love and family bonds.
Set Designer Mariana Sanchez turns the actors’ real-life kitchens into stages, subtly highlighting the difference between the two. The Son’s kitchen is all white, with everything well-organized and in its place, while the Dad’s has wooden cabinets and items scattered all over, his refrigerator door covered. The Son uses gadgets like a salad shooter and lemon press, while the Dad uses a towel and his hands and teeth. Costume Consultant Dina El-Aziz keeps them in casual outfits that continue their differences, with Son wearing a sweatshirt, Dad in a button-down shirt.
Lighting Designer Reza Behjat makes the light look natural while keeping the performers and their kitchens visible. Sound Designer James Ard makes sure the actors can be heard, while throwing in traffic sounds just as the camera opens. Before that, a piano plays a haunting note. Video Systems Designer Ido Levran provides a clear, seamless picture that softens the feel of technology, while showing more differences: Dad’s camera is at an angle, revealing more of the home outside the kitchen, whereas Son’s camera is straight on, showing only his kitchen.
Evren Odcikin does a wonderful job as director. The cooking keeps the actors busy with their hands and bodies while they peel back their history and expose their pain and emotions. While technical difficulties are always a possibility (indeed, this viewing had to start over a few moments in), the performances are so compelling, so intimate, that it feels like watching a private conversation. This Is Who I Am is a fantastic example of the power of live theater, and how the skillful use of technology can enhance it. This production will more than help “fill the gap” until in-person performances are once again safe.
Running Time: Approximately one hour, with no intermission.
ENCORE ON DEMAND: This Is Who I Am (which originally livestreamed December 5, 2020, through January 3, 2021) is now streaming on demand through April 25, 2021, on Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s website. To purchase tickets or for more information about this and future productions, please visit their website.