Be thankful that Betty Shamieh, a Palestinian-American scribe with seemingly limitless access to foundation resources, advances a provocative idea or two in “The Black Eyed,” because the static nature of her rigidly constructed polemical play makes it a trial to watch. Set in a vestibule of heaven where three archetypal Arab women from different historical periods debate the ethics of violence with a modern-day suicide bomber, the drama challenges the usual facile political arguments for blowing up your neighbor. But stodgy neo-classical format (lots of choral chants, no action) smothers the sparks of independent thought before they can catch fire.
Play is staged in a low-ceilinged antechamber of heaven, painted in a shade of bubblegum-pink that already undermines the tone of the debate. Here, a suicide bomber named Aiesha (glumly played by Aysan Celik) greets three Arab women who have heard of a room in the afterlife where dead martyrs sit in contemplation of the truths for which they died. Each for her own reasons, the women want entry to that room.
The biblical Delilah (Emily Swallow) wants a reunion with Samson, whose enraged destruction of the temple might be considered one of the earliest acts of retaliatory political violence. A Saracen woman named Tamam (Lameece Issaq) comes in search of her brother, who perished at the hands of a Christian Crusader during the holy wars of the Middle Ages. The third woman, identified only as an architect and played with quick intelligence by Jeanine Serralles, wants to meet the militant fanatic who deluded himself into thinking he was advancing a just cause by killing innocent civilians like herself.
“I’m an architect of unseen structures and buildings that will never be built,” she says, making the case for generations of artists. “I am the mother of children who will never be born.” She particularly wants to confront the Arab terrorist who ended her life at the World Trade Center while knowing full well that she herself was an Arab.
This critical talking point — that in killing innocent people, Arabs are harming themselves and their own people — loses some of its impact, buried as it is in a ton of verbiage. But it’s there.
Actually, the most intriguing thing about Shamieh’s treatment of her topic is that she doesn’t reduce the women to passive — or blameless — victims. Among the multicultural groups of (invisible) women gathered in this room are Iranian mothers “who helped convince their children it was their duty to run through land riddled with land mines.”
One of those militant femmes is right onstage, in the person of Palestinian Aiesha. The talkathon gets underway in earnest once it becomes clear that Aiesha is not trying to help the women resolve their troubling questions about the efficacy of political violence. In fact, she’s trying to keep them from entering the room where they might learn the answers they seek.
Even without her help, the women manage to arrive at some independent thoughts of their own. Delilah, for one, reminds them that years of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians have yielded absolutely nothing. “All the killing and struggling on both sides was in vain,” she says.
While such sentiments do carry weight in the context of this long-winded polemic, the level of the dialogue deteriorates, as the women trade cheap insults in bursts of clumsy anachronistic prose. In fact, it is only when the women openly challenge Aiesha’s own militant views that the play actually beings to feel like a true drama. But although Aiesha is allowed to deliver her best line of defense — “How do you survive in a violent world and not be violent?” — the play stops short of a genuine debate on the topic and pretty much ends there.