As a Turkish immigrant living in the Bay Area, director Evren Odcikin says we all could use a little more context.
It is us, the well-meaning liberals of the Bay Area, who can do the most harm when it comes to daily interactions, because of miscommunication and misunderstanding. But Odcikin says the history of the Middle East and understanding of specifically the Syrian Civil War aren’t easily accessible, that “you can’t Google context.”
This phenomenon reflects his core motivation and approach in directing “Kiss,” a play written by Guillermo Calderón and produced in association with Golden Thread Productions, an American theater company dedicated to producing art about the Middle East. The piece is set in Damascus, Syria and described as a “mystery and political thriller dressed up as a love story,” according to its press release.
“The thing I can say is, in the West, in the U.S., we have a tendency to want very simple black-and-white answers when it comes to Middle East,” Odcikin said. “And especially when it comes to a really horrific, bloody conflict like what’s be going on in Syria. … Even when you’re trying to get it right and are well-meaning, it can be difficult to get a true understanding of what’s happening, and what it might feel like when something like a civil war happens.”
Thus, “Kiss” is an attempt to simultaneously reflect and mock this misunderstanding — the hope, Odcikin said, is that audience members will leave the theater and discuss their own perceptions of Syria, the war in Syria and what the impacts of those perceptions are.
When it comes to “Kiss,” cross-cultural communication means parsing three different dialects of Arabic to produce an authentic representation of Syrian Arabic for the play. Odcikin described how the play especially depended on Nathalie Khankan, a poet of Syrian descent and a UC Berkeley professor. She helped actors with the translation and pronunciation of Syrian Arabic.
“The actor who’s playing a Syrian in the play is of Egyptian descent, so she speaks Egyptian Arabic. There was a great deal of training to get her tone right with Syrian Arabic,” Odcikin said. “The actor who plays the translator speaks Moroccan Arabic, which is a completely different dialect. … There were moments in the room … where there were three Arabics spoken at the same time … but they were sort of having conversations in three different dialects to figure out how best to create the scene that has translation and linguistic misunderstanding as the central piece of it.”
While this may seem chaotic to the outsider, Odcikin described how it was the perfect simulation of what the play itself is trying to reflect. He explained that he is an advocate for rehearsals being spaces for the very conversations that the play hopes to inspire among audience members.
Odcikin, as the director, thus views his role as asking the key questions to keep the piece in line with its mission: to provide context. He asks, in his own words, “the right questions to start the conversation in the room.” For example, Odcikin explained that people typically presume that everyone in the Middle East is Muslim, which he knows is not true. So while other directors may assume that all characters in a Syrian play will be Muslim, Odcikin said he does not make that assumption.
“Religion is a huge part of the play. … As we engage with these characters, the idea that they might be Christian, and what does that mean in the context of the current war that’s going on in Syria, is interesting,” Odcikin said. “That is the perspective, I hope, that I’m able to bring to these sort of plays and stories.”
With “Kiss,” Odcikin hopes to battle the “dehumanizing narrative” about Syria in the United States and to reject “the oversimplified idea of what it means to be Syrian,” an assumption that he believes many Americans hold.
And despite the critique of American assumptions underlying the play, Odcikin emphasized that the play is a hopeful one. To Odcikin, “Kiss” is a series of surprises and a puzzle. He hopes that audience members will laugh, cry and feel fulfilled in an intellectual way.
“Even though cross-cultural communication may be impossible to do perfectly, that theater makers and artists are thoughtfully trying to do it anyway. They are pushing themselves and their understanding that theater, with it’s live nature, is uniquely able to create understanding in the simplest of ways,” Odcikin said. “And that’s the fun thing about the play is that it makes fun of us — as liberal, well-meaning theater makers in the U.S. who want to help. But (it) also empowers us, encourages us to fight the good fight, even if we are going to make some mistakes along the way.”