In Zuabi’s ‘Grey Rock’, a Palestinian rocketman dreams of reaching the moon

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Last night I went to the opening night of “Grey Rock,” a play about love and dreams in Palestine written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, and found it completely charming and even ravishing. The play has a ten-day run at the Public and then travels to the Guthrie in Minneapolis, and I urge you to go if you get a chance.

The play concerns a Palestinian Icarus. Yusuf, a TV repairman in an occupied West Bank village, is still heartbroken three years after his wife’s death and decides that he is going to devote all his resources to a demonstration of Palestinian daring inspired by NASA: he is secretly building a rocket in his shed to reach the moon. The plot is at once comic and noble. Yusuf spent five years in an Israeli prison for his political writings as a young man, and now an old man, he believes that Palestinians should have the right to escape their oppression and dream of great achievements, as other people do.

Amir Nizar Zuabi, playwright, screenshot from appearance at Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia University.

The brilliance of this production is the elite cast. Five Palestinian/Palestine-based players from Israel and the West Bank completely take over the audience’s imagination with their gifts for dramatic, emotional and satirical expression. Khalifa Natour is on stage for all but about five minutes of this play, as Yusuf, and you are drawn to his every mood of wonder, daring, and devotion to his wife and daughter. Natour makes you completely believe in Yusuf’s dream, and with it the humanity of Palestinians. Fidaa Zaidan gives a thrilling performance as his very sovereign daughter  Two veterans of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, Motaz Malhees and Alaa Shehada, provide great comic relief as a businessman/suitor and an imam.

Fidaa Zaidan and Ivan Kevork Azazian in “Grey Rock” at the Public Theater.

I am sure some will have political quibbles with this play. The occupation is not frontal, Israelis are a vague presence, and so this piece could get past the censors of the Public as the Freedom Theatre’s production of “The Siege” failed to do when it was canceled three years ago because it humanized militant Palestinian resistance. Yusuf’s daughter says an improbable line or two about women not supporting resistance.

Yet this play is so successful on an intimate scale that it transcends politics and explains them, too. It is another milestone in American recognition of a suppressed truth I remember John Ging telling our delegation to Gaza ten years ago, Palestinians are a deeply civilized people.

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What a clever and touching idea for a play.