The power of The Vagrant Trilogy, Mona Mansour’s incredible work, currently at the Public Theater until 15 of May, lies in the questions it raises. These concern the very real circumstances presented, especially in Act III. Mona Mansour’s connected one-act plays (that took the Public one decade to effect), ask us to empathize with the plight of the Palestinian characters Abir (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) and Adham (Bassam Abdelfattah). We watch as their world shatters and they have to decide whether to remain in London or go back home to live in a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Before the play begins, the actors introduce the structure and events, explaining that Act I is the set up to explore a decision whose consequences offer two alternate realities. The two different outcomes that occur in Act II and Act III reveal a life of free choice versus a life where one’s every movement is controlled, monitored and limited, as the characters live in squalid conditions, and their upward mobility curtailed unless they escape.
Mansour asks us to consider the extreme consequences of a single decision to change one’s status from culturally displaced immigrant, who gives up everything to live in relative comfort, to that of a refugee who retains cultural identity and family but gives up his comfort and future. The director (Mark Wing-Davey), and the playwright with prodigious effort intend that we empathize with such decisions that the globally displaced are forced to make. These will only increase as wars and extreme events, like climate change created drought and famine destabilize nation states. These will uproot humanity, who will be forced to migrate to places of relative safety, if they can find such places.
Invariably, as we identify with Abir and Adham and walk in their shoes, we ask which sacrifice would we make if we were in their position to choose between Scylla and Charybdis? (Greek mythological monsters Odysseus faced on his journey home) Which monstrous choice would help us retain the most valuable part of ourselves? Or does the act of choosing wipe-out identity, regardless of outcome, as the decision-makers consign themselves to a life of regretful “what ifs,” every time they confront the dire obstacles which are bound to occur?
The refugee camp that Adham refers to throughout the play, is the camp where he and his mother escaped from while his father and brother remained behind. The camp was formed after the first Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 around the time that Israel was declared an independent state and Palestinians rejected partition and a two-state solution. As a result of the war, displaced Palestinian refugees were shuffled over to Burj El Barajneh, a camp in Lebanon that opened up in 1949. Once there, they were told that they would go home and be resettled, eventually.
One of many refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, the UN has stipulated that they have a right to return. The dictum is ridiculous; there is nothing to return to, nor can they receive documentation to readily return to the area they were forced to flee as casualties of war. Meanwhile, those in the camps wait for a resolution, generations have grown up and moved on. Indeed Adham’s father dies in the camp without ever returning to the homeland he lost. Sadly, the refugees are unable to work or obtain citizenship in the country that hosts them. There’s is a never-ending limbo from which few escape.
Time has passed since the camp was formed and Adham escaped with his mom. It is 1967 in Act I when Adham and Abir meet in their small village in Jordan (former Palestine), after Adham graduates from college. It is right before he goes off to a prestigious speaking event in London where he has been selected out of many talented candidates. Swept up in their attraction for one another, Adham takes Abir home to meet his forceful, prescient, ambitious mother (Nadine Malouf), who disapproves of Abir as a wife.
Not heeding his mother’s warning, he proposes, they elope, and travel to London where Adham garners success at the lecture and is accepted by the faculty (Osh Ashruf, Rudy Roushdi), who he schmoozes with at a party. Fortunately, the exuberant, friendly, faculty wife Diana, (Nadine Malouf’s versatility is smashing in all the roles she portrays), provides the social bridge to make Ahmad comfortable. However, Abir feels uncomfortable, a fish out of water which Adham admits to. But he feels grounded in his subject of literature in academia and he speaks English, which Abir does not.
During the evening of his success at the party, the 1967 Arab Israeli six-day war breaks out. The faculty suggests they stay in London. They will get the couple visas and work out an internship or something available and doable. Abir is distraught about leaving her family and accuses Adham of heartlessly leaving his mother who sacrificed everything for him. The argument intensifies and by the end of it, their emotional fury explodes. The fact is brought out that if they leave, they may never be allowed to return to London as Palestinians, who are now in a state of flux with Israel, the Arab world and the US. They must make their momentous decision and never look back
In Act II Adham’s life unfolds as a professor applying for full tenure. He is still friends with Abir whom he has divorced because of their irreconcialble differences, mainly that Abir blames Adham for staying, a convenient excuse because after the divorce she could return. However, we learn that Abir has it both ways; she accepts little responsibility for her decision to stay and blames Adham for it.
As this section unfolds, we understand Abir’s complaining to another professor friend about him, the same rants; he abandoned his brother and mother and is selfish. She is at the home of Ahmad whom she sees frequently. For his part, Adham’s teaching career is problematic and in limbo without a full professorship. He is neither here nor there culturally; he is like the vagrant he refers to in a Wordsworth poem he has studied and teaches.
Though he has made friends at the university, he finds increasing difficulty with students and faculty as a Palestinian. Act II resolves as he visits the Lake District, the setting of poet Wordsworth’s wanderings which remind him of what he has gained and lost. It is a respite that works in tandem with his discovery that his brother has died in the refugee camp, a casualty of the further escalation of the “eye-for-eye,” “tooth-for-tooth” machinations that occur in the Middle East. Thus, though he is in comfort, he is alone to pursue his career and writings and in a kind of a limbo, without family.
The set design of Act I and II is evocative, with music from the period, projections, and more, thanks to the following creatives: Allen Moyer (scenic design), Dina El-Aziz (costume design), Reza Behjat (lighting design), Tye Hunt Fitzgerald, Sinan Refik Zafar (co-sound design), Greg Emetaz (video design). However, Act III takes place in the refugee camp in the alternate reality that Adham and Abir would have faced, if they returned home.
The Act III set design, sound, lighting are wonderful as they reveal the difficulties and conditions in the camp (power outages, etc.). The two rooms where they live are more tent than shack. There, Adham, Abir, their children Jamila (Nandine Malouf is just incredible as the teen daughter) and Jul (the fine Rudy Roushdi) eat, argue, sleep and manage to survive. The cramped, impoverished, though decorative quarters (rugs and scarves adorn the walls), also hold space for Abir’s brother Ghassan (Ramsey Faragallah) and Adham’s brother Hamzi, (Osh Ashruf in a vibrant enthusiastic portrayal).
It is in Act III where we experience the full impact of their decision to go back “home” which is nowhere, a refugee camp where they wait and wait for a resolution of the Middle East conflict. It never comes. It is heart-rending, and the actors are magnificent in their portrayals which bring Mansour’s themes to their striking and tragic end-stop. What are we doing globally about this? Why? The misery is incalculable. And Ukrainian refugees in Europe and Syrian refugees, etc. and those from South America must be helped. But how? But when? Can the refugee crises ever be stopped?
This incredible production must be seen. The three hours speed by, but it is not for the faint of heart. While I sat riveted, the couple next to me walked out after Act I, while I couldn’t budge from my seat. For tickets and times, go to the website: https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2122/the-vagrant-trilogy/