Beyond the veil

Betty Shamieh explodes Arab archetypes in The Black Eyed.

WOMEN ON THE VERGE Shamieh examines the lives of the marginalized.

WOMEN ON THE VERGE Shamieh examines the lives of the marginalized. Photo: Beth Levendis

Shortly after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, Betty Shamieh began work on The Black Eyed. A Palestinian-American playwright from San Francisco, Shamieh has earned acclaim for writing about the Arab-American experience in Chocolate in Heat (2001) and Roar (2004); in The Black Eyed, she focuses on four Palestinian women from various eras—the biblical Delilah, a victim of the Crusades, a contemporary suicide bomber and an Arab-American architect—stranded in the afterlife, where they face the choices they made while alive. "It's a timeless tragedy of human beings compelled to resort to violence because they believe that's the only way people will hear them," notes James Nicola, the artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, where the play is now in previews. Looking cool on a blistering summer afternoon, Shamieh talked to TONY about the heated emotions behind her work.

Did you know from the start what you wanted The Black Eyed to say?
It just came out of me. I was really interested in sinking my teeth into what it was like being a Palestinian-American living in New York after 9/11. I realized that to write political theater with any sort of sense of humor, or humanity, you have to put it in cultural historic context. So I started with Delilah. I always think of Samson as the biblical equivalent of a suicide bomber. After 9/11, it was interesting to hear people talk as if suicide bombing was a phenomenon that hadn't existed in the very core of many societies, and that's where the play took off.

The script is really compelling, in part because you depict a suicide bomber's point of view without condoning her actions.
I tried to create a play that was both timely and timeless...but it became more and more timely. I finished the first draft and did a reading at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum three weeks before there was a female suicide bomber in the headlines [January 2002]. I had the sense that things were going in that direction. The play is a struggle between the artist and the militant in society. Who has the best means to survive? How do you survive in a violent world without being violent?

Do you draw on personal experience?
[Right after 9/11] I was living in a world where if there was another attack, I didn't know how my friends, how theater people—how the society I was living in—would view me.

Even though you're part of a pretty liberal community?
I did feel the society I was living in was scared, and as I show in the play, people do ugly things when they're scared. When we produced the play in Greece, the Arab-American character was seen as kind of namby-pamby, someone who wasn't dealing with the reality of what it's like to be a woman in Gaza, where one third of the children suffer malnutrition.

How do you want audiences to respond to your work?
My favorite compliments come from people who start off with "I'm not an Arab..." or "I'm not a woman..." but they connected with it. I write about Arab issues, hopefully, in the way that Tennessee Williams wrote about Southerners. They're a subset of a society, but you're making those people so alive that a white man who has nothing to do with Blanche DuBois can identify. Roar was basically Streetcar set in an Arab family after the first Gulf War.

How has theater responded to the post--September 11 world?
I think film's doing it better. Film has given us Syriana and Munich, and it's really digging into things. Theater is on its way, but I'm not seeing it grappling with the historical perspective or talking about how being attacked hit our cultural psyche. I still feel a bit of a disconnect.

The Black Eyed is at New York Theatre Workshop through Aug 19. See Off Broadway.