Displacement and dislocation — from family, from home, community, nation — was the 20th century’s defining trope. It’s hard not to see today’s refugee crisis in relation to the history of Jews and Jewish refugees.
Lebanese-American playwright Mona Mansour deals with a slice of this moving humanitarian crisis in her elegiac play “The Vagrant Trilogy,” which is finishing its world premiere run at Mosaic Theater Company this weekend.
With a bracingly brilliant production directed by Mark Wing-Davey, Mansour’s three-part tale follows Adham, whom we first meet in 1967 — at the cusp of the Six-Day War — as a rising young scholar of British Romantic poetry. Adham is Palestinian and has been invited to address an important group of British literature professors in London. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime.
The succeeding two parts of Mansour’s three-hour-and-20-minute triptych take divergent paths — looking at what would happen if Adham remained in London and, in the final, painful, third act, an epilogue of sorts set in 2003, what could happen if he instead reunited with his brother in a Lebanese refugee camp.
It’s a fascinating premise and, in an era when a segment of Israeli and American Jews has been examining the duel narratives that encompass Israel’s embattled foundational history, Mansour’s writing is both revelatory and pointed. Dual narrative work — in education, social activism and artistic production — strives to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to bring both sides together to understand the contentious and complex history of both peoples in a single land. The principal hope is that expanding awareness and understanding of the “other” and hearing the “other’s” story can lead to a lasting peace.
In “The Vagrant Trilogy,” Adham, the rising scholar, assumes the identity of an “other” in every place he lives. At home in the yet-to-be-Occupied Territories, he is an anomaly, the one-in-a-hundred who has made it out. He’s a sophisticate amid his less urbane compatriots.
That includes Abir, the cute but provincial school girl he meets and marries. In 1967, Abir is as rebellious as the times and her devout Muslim upbringing permit — wearing Western clothes, admiring glamorous star Julie Christie, smoking and pursuing a man, no matter how nonchalantly.
In London as an academic’s wife, she’s a fish out of water. Her husband is an anomaly, a brown-skinned exotic who speaks Arabic. And when news comes of Israel’s deadly strike decimating the Egyptian air force, Abir’s political leanings are clear — Israel is the enemy and Moshe Dayan and his colleagues are liars, thieves and worse.
But playwright Mansour is no Israel basher. She treats the war with restraint, allowing each character to speak for the sake of her narrative arc. (That said, this may not be the play of choice for staunch Israel supporters who can’t stomach criticism of the Jewish state.)
With Adham as protagonist, Mansour draws connections to themes in William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey,” where the poet described his memories of a bucolic spot from his younger days. There’s ache in his words and a mention of “vagrant dwellers” provides the play’s title and underscores the playwright’s theme. We come to see Adham as the vagrant, stateless, wanderer. And with the play’s dual endings, whether he chooses a life abroad in academia or one surrounded by extended family but interned, he will remain rootless, unsettled, always waiting.
This thread provides an incontrovertible subtext and, for this viewer, provokes thoughts of the quintessential wandering Jew: displaced for millennia, dehumanized and murdered, across nations and centuries. Jewish history is a history of wandering, seeking refuge and overcoming obstacles.
Mansour’s final, vivid portrait of squalid life in a Lebanese refugee camp in part three of the trilogy is painfully germane to so many Jews who have had parents, grandparents and others who were refugees.
With Chekhovian ennui, Mansour’s story details the specific hardships a Palestinian family has faced, some of those due to poor decisions and loyalties to a poetic memory of what might have been a bucolic past.
Yet, the power of her scintillating family portrait is in understanding the universality of this family’s story in an era when displacement is occurring around the world. This portrait isn’t my family, nor is it yours, but as Americans, and as Jews, but just a generation or two ago, it could have been. Our family histories of displacement and immigration have more in common than many want to admit and reflect our parallel narratives — seeking refuge, surviving the unthinkable and building life anew against all odds.
Aside from universalizing a little-told aspect of the Palestinian experience, Mosaic Theater Company’s production of “The Vagrant Trilogy” probably has one of the finest casts on a local stage this season. Actors Hadi Tabbal and Dina Soltan as dewy newlyweds and then as middle-aged parents are powerful and dynamic performers. And their ease in switching to Arabic provides another level of verisimilitude to the play. (There are projected subtitles on the ingenious moving panels by designer Luciana Stecconi.)
The astonishing Nora Achrati transforms brilliantly between a giggly English major, Adham’s dour mother, a feminist professor and, late in the play, studious daughter Jamila. Her transitions of accent, demeanor and voice are stunning. The cast is rounded out by Elan Zafir, Shpend Xani and Michael Kramer, who also take on multiple roles.
Lighting designer Reza Behjat captures the watery light of London and the brilliant sun of the Middle East, while sound designer David Lamont Wilson shifts from the lighthearted sounds of background party conversation and background chatter to ominous gunfire and overhead planes in the refugee camp.
“The Vagrant Trilogy” is not an easy play — it’s long and at times harrowing, though not epic. Mansour has written a 21st-century elegy to the wanderer, the displaced refugee yearning for what was once home. She leaves us not with hope, but with inconsolable ache.
“The Vagrant Trilogy,” through July 1; Mosaic Theater Company, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington; tickets: $20-$65; visit mosaictheater.org/the-vagrant-trilogy.