“We Don’t Listen to Each Other’s Stories”
Actress and playwright Najla Said is coming to Philadelphia to perform her one-woman show, Palestine, at the Interact Theatre as part of their Outside the Frame: Voice from the Other America series, March 27 – April 22. Voices from the Other America is a first-time, four-week theatre festival featuring presented works by leading nationally-known story-tellers, solo artists, and monologists, sharing their stories about identity in America.
In April 2010, Najla completed an eight-week sold-out Off-Broadway run of her solo show, Palestine. InterAct founder Seth Rozin says: She addresses the audience with a rare and refreshing blend of pride and self-deprecation, as she conveys the delicate balance between living a life of American privilege against the growing awareness of her identity as an Arab woman.”
I had the chance to speak to Ms. Said from her Upper West Side home. In Palestine, Said explores her identity as a “Palestinian-Lebanese-American-Christian woman.” She recounts how she shared bagels and lox with her best friend in Brooklyn on Sunday mornings and “was more likely to say ‘oy vay’ and ‘I’m schvitzing’ than any gentiles.”
Ms.Said is the daughter of academic and public intellectual, Edward Said, who, according to Ms. Said, described himself, somewhat facetiously, as one of the “last Jewish intellectuals”. “Part of the journey of writing Palestine, was to explore my Arab-American identity. I spent my childhood avoiding this part of myself.”
“When people called me an Arab-American, I tried to embrace it, but I really didn’t know what that is. It’s been a journey to become more self-aware. I don’t fit into this or that definition. I’m a little bit of all things.”
Interview of Najla Said follows the jump.
3 Performances Only:
How has the play been received by Jewish and Arab audiences? Do you find a difference?
NS: There’s a self-selected group of people who would go see an Off-Broadway play called Palestine in the first place. What I have found is that the reception turns more on class and education levels than on ethnic or religious identity. When I have performed the play for Arab communities who are more attached to their Muslim identity they don’t really get why this snooty, Upper West Side Arab girl was kissing Jewish boys.”
What was the process like of writing the play?
NS: I structured it in a way so that people would listen and won’t stop listening to the story. I tried to imagine I was having a conversation with a someone who didn’t know anything about me, maybe someone Jewish.
What is your training as an actress?
NS: I attended Princeton as an undergraduate and majored in comparative literature. In NYC I took many acting classes and studied at the Actor’s Center at the Public Theatre. I love Shakespeare and Checkov – I’m a geek that way. I love Genet too.
Palestine is your first play. Do you see yourself writing more, or focusing more on your acting career?
NS: Writing is very hard. Through Palestine, I received a contract to write a memoir about my life as an Arab-American woman. I have found writing the memoir extremely challenging and have learned a lot. My editor wanted the book to be more about Arab-Americans as an ethnic group as there are not many books like this. So it’s less about my Father, Edward Said, as the play is, and more about me as an Arab-American woman. It’s coming out next year.
How did you come to write the play, Palestine?
NS: Part of the impulse to write Palestine was my feeling limited by roles for Arab women both in theatre and in Hollywood. I wanted to show people I have other identities. An actor should be a blank slate, and it’s difficult for me, because I’m always, Edward Said’s daughter. It turns everything into a political event. In Hollywood casting people would say, ‘Funny, you don’t look Arabic.’
Ms. Said performs the play at various high schools around the country. When she performed Palestine at a private high school on the Upper East Side, to a predominantly Jewish group of boys and girls, the students loved the play.
NS: After the performance, a young woman told me that her grandmother told her she was anti-semitic because she didn’t approve of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. When I grew up on the Upper West Side, my Jewish friends’ grandparents were Holocaust survivors. But now, these young people today, are more removed from the Holocaust and their main identity might not be Jewish. Or, they may be so secure in their Jewish identity that they can criticize Israel without losing their strong sense of being Jewish.