In a recent episode of the podcast “Black on the Air” featuring comedian/host Larry Wilmore and his guest, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, both agreed that this may be the most divisive time for a conversation among opposite political rivals. Both held a strong belief that there is minimal chance either side will bend on this and it just gets worse every day.
Playwright Mona Mansour, whose play “We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War” is seeing its world premiere running at San Francisco’s Potrero Stage through Dec. 16th, faced one of her biases head on in an airport. It had everything to do with her “distaste for all things military,” which was about to make for a very interesting flight.
Mansour, an American playwright of Lebanese descent, has seen a very complicated relationship unfold for many years between Middle Eastern nations and the American military. So a few years ago, when she was at the airport getting ready for a cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles, she discovered that her seat mate was a military man in fatigues. It was going to make her long flight even longer.
Or so it would have appeared.
“We spent the entire six hours talking, and it was really eye-opening to me and we are friends now,” said Mansour, who is also a television writer and a resident of New Dramatists playwriting collective in New York. “I have a lot of affection for him, he did multiple tours in Afghanistan.”
Spending time with the military man was one moment that challenged her overall beliefs, but one other moment shaped those beliefs even further – the decision of her beloved nephew to enter the military.
“if I love my nephew unconditionally, which I do, how do we pivot from there? How do we proceed?”
Mansour knew she had to do something that has gotten harder and harder for many swaths of people.
“I checked my assumptions and knee-jerk distaste, and I realized I had grouped everyone together,” said Mansour. “I really asked myself how do I engage with someone with vastly different beliefs than I do.”
Mansour’s play, directed by Golden Thread’s artistic director Evren Odcikin, follows the story of an Arab-American woman and her military-enlisted nephew, which inspires a deeper conversation about family, identity and politics. As Middle Eastern populations grow around the world due to war and relocation, communities are adjusting to a new diaspora in their neighborhoods, with results that are both inspiring and disturbing.
The play has received raves in its reviews, with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Lily Janiak granting the production a “Leaping Man,” review, praising the plays challenge of form and its ability to “let time and space constraints dissolve.”
The play is not fully an autobiographical piece, but more of a play where Mansour said the characters reflect her life experience “about fifty-fifty.” And as an aunt who adores her nephew, in those initial readings of the play, it was told to her that there was one big issue that made the play feel a bit inauthentic.
“The sort of feedback I received was that I was being a bit hard on the aunt as opposed to the nephew, because I was feeling very protective,” said Mansour. “When writing about someone who wasn’t a son but a nephew, in a way I had to sort of broaden him out and in some ways I had to be a little rougher with his character.
“It seemed that I was launching more into her, and I wasn’t quite there yet. You try to follow these people as best as you can and reveal something about both of them.
When it comes right down to it, based on all of the conversations that aren’t happening, Mansour not only wanted to create a work with a unique Middle Eastern-American voice, but one that also has some roots in pragmatism, to create a play that cuts out the shouting and focuses on the listening.
“I am hoping that I am launching a play that will serve as an opening of dialogue between people.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Golden Thread productions presents “We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War”
Written by Mona Mansour
Directed by Evren Odcikin
1695 18th Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission
Through Dec. 16th
For tickets, visit www.goldenthread.org