My show “The Vagrant Trilogy” is a conditional trilogy — a bit like the movie “Sliding Doors” (1998). In the first play, a young man and his wife travel from Palestine to London for a conference. Then the 1967 Arab-Israeli war breaks out, and they have to decide what to do. What follows are two different versions of what happens. The play is about what’s lost when you leave and the idea that, once you do, you’re never really going to be of the place you came from — or the one you’ve gone to. The production was meant to be put on at the Public Theater in New York in early 2020, but Covid-19 intervened. We left the theatre and our stuff, thinking, like so many others, that we’d be back soon. It was an odd thing to happen in the middle of a show about displaced people. By no means am I comparing what we went through to the fate of refugees, but it gave us a taste of that kind of stasis and lack of agency, that Chekhovian sort of waiting.
This photo was taken on the first day we were all together in person since that last rehearsal, so it was this self-conscious moment because we’d been talking about our reunion for so long. In theatre, the word “family” gets thrown around a lot, and I usually bristle at that, but with this group, it’s apt. It’s partly because we feel connected by the material; almost everyone involved is either the child of someone who left their homeland or is someone who left themselves. And partly it’s because, on what was meant to be our opening night, we met up on Zoom for what became the first of many poetry readings. “Kindness” (1980), by the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, became our liturgy — we had a different person read it each time — and people brought other poems, too. After some of them were read, there was just silence.
I tend to be a more extroverted writer. I like to improvise potential scenes with actors, which gives me some raw material and a sense of the group dynamic. I’ve had playwriting advisers say things like, “You need to write an actor-proof play.” But I fully believe that the people in the room and the way they are together are part of the whole thing.
Another lesson I’ve learned is to be someone whom people want to be around. There was a time in my 20s when I was trying to be disaffected, but it doesn’t behove you to act uninterested, unless you actually are, and in that case, why are you there? At a certain point, you let go of the idea of what an artist should be.