Tales of a City by the Sea

La Mama Tales of a City by the Sea Osamah Sami Helena SawiresWhat do we know of The Gaza Strip? It’s a ribbon of land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a self-governing Palestinian territory that shares a border with Egypt, and a much more restrictive one with Israel. In recent times, the little news of Gaza carried by Australian media is limited to incoming rocket strikes or movements of Hamas’ military wing.

Tales of a City by the Sea by Palestinian Canadian Australian playwright Samah Sabawi gives a more personal perspective on the lives of Gaza’s residents, presenting scenes of daily life under continuing uncertainty. Tales of a City by the Sea is on the 2016 VCE Drama Playlist. It was informed by the author’s relationships with Palestinians in Gaza, such as through Skype conversations with contacts as bombs fell on neighbourhoods.

Much of the play concerns tentative romantic attachments. Poet and internet activist Jomana (Helana Sawires) wonders about the motivations of US-born Palestinian and medical doctor Rami (Osamah Sami). Their relationship begins when he breaches a blockade on a wooden boat as part of an international contingent trying to raise awareness of conditions in Gaza. Jomana is chaperone to friend Lama (Emina Ashman), who is in no hurry to commit to suitor Ali (Reece Vella).

I found some scenes more credible than others. We can believe that Jomala’s father (Ubaldino Mantelli) might take a matter-of-fact response to frequent shortages of water or electricity. It’s also understandable for Jomala to get angry when she feels her people are subjected to violence and no-one outside of Gaza cares.

We don’t need to have this repeated though. Following a bombing run by the Israeli military, many were injured. For Rami to have a passionate monologue after losing a patient, whilst many injured still required treatment, was a heavy-handed way of allowing Rami to express doubts about staying in Gaza.

This, and some other aspects of the play made me think that the author is so close to the Palestinian situation that she has a “professional blind spot”. Some viewers won’t know enough about Gaza to appreciate the tensions affecting its citizens. We can try and be informed; I’ve read articles such as Ruby Hamad on cultural appropriation of the food of Levant Arabs.

Such random offerings can only give a limited view of one particular conflict zone. Not enough to help me appreciate the key matter of why Jomala wanted to remain in Gaza – only created in 1949 – rather than follow Rami. Plenty of people (both of my parents) migrated in search of better lives, why isn’t this an option? What does staying hope to achieve? Some other parts of the production were a little underwhelming. A few fairly lengthy scene changes with the layers of curtains on the set didn’t achieve much.

It is reasonable to compare this work with My name is Rachel Corrie the story of a young American activist for the Palestinian cause, created from her letters and diaries by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner. I found a production of this both informative and surprisingly moving.

As that was formed from her outsider accounts, I didn’t find myself thinking “What inconvenient or unflattering fact has been left out here?” as I sometimes did with Tales of a City by the Sea. I suspect that the ‘Writer’s Notes’ in the programme could have circumvented this reservation by educating us further in the factual basis of this particular work.

What this play does well though is to give us some window into what people choose to do when their options are severely limited. With a textured performance, Ashman features in a number of these scenes. In one, Lama chooses to make sandwiches whilst bombs fall so that her family can feed the soon-to-be homeless. In another, she accepts the practicality of marriage, and its role in a personal statement of resistance. These scenes stand out for having a feeling of uncluttered authenticity.

As Australians from some other diaspora, what do we know of Gaza? In my case, that’s much more about its casualties than its people. Whilst I feel mixed about Tales of a city by the Sea, its value is in reminding us that people live there – people with similar hopes to us – even when they are not in the headlines.

Director: Lech Mackiewicz (Original), Wahibe Moussa (Remount) Performers: Helana Sawires, Osamah Sami, Emina Ashman, Reece Vella, Alex Pinder, Rebecca Morton, Cara Whitehouse, Aseel Tayah, Ubaldino Mantelli Set Design: Lara Week Lighting Design: Shane Grant Sound Design: Khaled Sabsabi Sound Mixer: Max Schollar-Root Production / Stage Manager: Hayley Fox Assistant Stage Manager: James Crafti Producers: Samah Sabawi, Daniel Clarke and Lara Week

Tales of a City by the Sea
La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton
Performance: Saturday 14 May 2016 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 29 May 2016
Information and bookings: www.lamama.com.au

The Bakehouse Theatre, 255 Angas Street, Adelaide
Season: 8 – 18 June 2016
Information and bookings: www.bakehousetheatre.com

Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 1 Powerhouse Road, Casula (Sydney)
Performance: 3 August 2016 – 11.00am / 7.00pm
Information and bookings: www.casulapowerhouse.com

For more information, visit: www.talesofacitybythesea.com for details.

Image: Osamah Sami and Helana Sawires feature in Tales of a City by the Sea (supplied)

Review: Jason Whyte