‘Grey Rock’ at the Kennedy Center spotlights the extraordinary in the ordinary

Palestinian playwright-director offers a glimpse into people just like us

In Grey Rock, Playwright-Director Amir Nizar Zuabi invites us into the home of an ordinary Palestinian family in a small West Bank village. We soon recognize the extraordinary in the ordinary — the hopes of a father with a secret, a daughter with a design for marriage and family, and three young men with plans of their own.

Khalifa Natour in World Stages: ‘Grey Rock’ at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Carlos Cardona.

The plans and hopes of the five characters are no different from our own – despite the setting. As each character’s pain comes to the surface, we reach across and join them.

Grey Rock is a heartfelt meditation on sacrifice and grand gesture, commitment to self vs. community, and how those who surround a visionary place themselves into their orbit. Set in a village near Ramallah, a few miles from the spiritual capital of three world religions, this reflection on ordinary life and ordinary people confounded by oppression from outside and within will leave you thinking, wondering, and hopeful that you will meet them all again, soon.

Retired physicist Yusuf (Khalifa Natour) spends his days in his shed; he’s secretly building a rocket to the moon, financing it by selling his ancient family’s olive groves. We first meet him jogging with his daughter Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) as she playfully inquires if, three years after her mother’s death, he has started dating. The resulting blushes amid their easy relationship are universal and endearing. These are people we know.

Natour brings confidence and an easy grace to his role. He starts out a bit shy, wearing a Mr. Rogers sweater and an easy grin. As a young man, he was a political pamphleteer, a modern-day Alexander Hamilton. He is still a man of passion, of dreams. The actor gently reveals this passion with his eyes, his speech, and his posture. When he quotes the spiritual poetry of the Koran during a debate in Arabic with the Sheik (Motaz Malhees), the community’s spiritual leader, the audience is lifted to a higher plane.

As his energetic daughter, one eye on her father and the other on her future, Zaidan portrays the vitality of intelligent youth and an appealing quickness. At times, her bounciness is a distraction, as if she is half in the conversation or hesitant to commit to the character’s emotions.

Motaz Malhees, Ivan Kerezork Azazian, Fidaa Zidan and Khalifa Natour in World Stages: ‘Grey Rock’ at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Carlos Cardona.

As Sheik, Malhees arcs his character artfully, a bit distant (if also indistinct) in the early stages, later charmed by and passionate about Yusuf’s work and goal. Sheik embodies the investment in the land and the culture that may be oppressing its people as much as the outsiders that have haunted Palestine since pre-history. As the play unfolds, so does Malhees as he brings tenderness and then passion to the Sheik’s own conversion, embracing the past and potential future of Arab leadership in scientific discovery.

By turns, we meet Lila’s fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), a successful businessman, and Fadel (Ivan Kervork Azazian), a scholar turned deliveryman who yearns to do something with his mind (and heart).

As Jawad, Shehada honestly and respectfully portrays the successful survivor of an occupied land, a striver who will succeed in bringing honor to his family and jobs to his community, and possibly love and some happiness to himself. Shehada is rock steady in his joys, dreams, and anger, eliciting tears even as he fights for what he wants.

Azazian unpeels his character in a nuanced way. He brings physicality – in his shoulders, bulging eyes, uneasy feet — and deep thoughtfulness (he listens completely) to the role of a young man who knows where he wants to be, but has yet to find the way.

As director, Zuabi delivers a delightful ensemble performance. The pace is quick, the matters clear, and the integration of projections and the internet adds dimension and connection. The metaphors fly as references to the past (near past of moon landings and far past of the development of modern mathematics) collide playfully with references to American optimism and black market availability.

Lighting moves neatly as it transitions our attention through the playing area, and the sound design evokes various moods, from the softness of the initial moments to the static of an Umm Kulthum love song playing on the shop radio. The set is spare where it needs to be and as cluttered as Yusuf’s mind in his private shop, the clutter wonderfully evoking the impossible task of building a rocket out of 1940s office fans, household appliance parts, and an overhead projector from grandma’s grade-school class. But then, that is how NASA did it in the 1960s, n’est-ce pas?

Running Time: Approximately one and a half hours.

Grey Rock plays through February 1, 2020, at the Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or go online.

Grey Rock is a production of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages Program
Set and Projection Design: Tal Yarden
Lighting Design: Muaz Jubeh
Sound Design: Katic Down
Commissioned and Produced by Alexandra Aron, Remote Theater Project
Associate Producer: Bonnie Sue Stein, GOH Productions


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