With the horrors of the Gaza conflict ongoing and with recent demonstrations here in New York by both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian sympathizers, Samira is a very relevant theatrical work. Presented by The Present Company as part of the New York International Fringe Festival, Samira stars its author, Israeli actress Anat Barzilay, as an unremarkable Muslim housewife and mother who decides to become a suicide bomber.
What happens next is quite unexpected. Samira fails to kill herself as her bomb detonates in a crowded café. Several people are killed, including a little girl. Her interrogation by Israeli investigators becomes the body of the piece, interspersed with eyewitness testimony as well as testimony from Samira’s own family members. As the title character, Barzilay sits alone onstage in a black wooden chair, answering her interrogators as best she can (Barzilay is miked for some reason, despite the fact that the theatre only seats forty). The venue itself, a basement performance space made of concrete and stainless steel, suggests a prison. Her crime is described by the people who were there when the bomb went off and the details of Samira’s unhappy life are told by the people who know her best, her family and neighbors. This testimony is dramatized by video projections of actors whose scenes were shot in Israel.
There is quite a lot of video in Samira -- too much, really. The most effective element is Samira herself, powerfully portrayed by Barzilay. Her performance is haunting more than it is tear-inducing. Barzilay, with her rich voice and large, expressive eyes, is impossible to ignore. The video, with erratic, showy editing, presents one camera angle of the subject before cutting to another angle and then returning to the first one every two or three seconds. It quickly becomes intrusive and ultimately annoying. The performances of the video actors are uneven; one of the eyewitnesses spoke so rapidly and with such a heavy accent that I could not understand very much of what he said. The most effective was the actress who played Samira’s adult daughter. Understated, unflinching, yet gripping, she delivers a fine performance.
This piece was performed at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it is well-suited to traveling all over the world. There is a lot of Samira’s story that is left unsaid, which makes it all the more haunting and thought-provoking. Why did Samira decide to become a suicide bomber? Are the roots to be found in Samira’s unhappiness in life? Or is the problem really religion itself? This piece does not wrap things up neatly, one is left to wonder.
The most memorable image was of that Barzilay taking her final bow and removing her hijab, allowing her hair to fall down onto her shoulders. This simple, defiant act was repeated by every one of the actresses who appeared in the video. One by one the actresses smiled confidently before taking this garment, simple in form but politically charged beyond measure, from their heads, tearing themselves from the characters they had just portrayed and refuting the custom they had accepted for the sake of illusion. There was perhaps more political theatre in that act then there is in the rest of the play.
Performances of Samira continue at 64E4 Underground through August 24 as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. For more on FringeNYC shows, click here.
Through August 24 at 64E4 Underground.