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Noura at the Guthrie Theater

Welcome to my first review of 2020! This musical theater fanatic started out the year with a non-musical. Shocking, I know! Fortunately for me (and all of you who are going to read this post and immediately go buy tickets!), it did not disappoint. My first show of the year was Noura, written by Heather Raffo, at Guthrie Theater.

Noura tells a story that is simultaneously just down the street and completely foreign for many Americans. Titular character Noura (Gamze Ceylan) is an Iraqi refugee living in New York City. She and her family, husband Tareq (Fajer Kaisi) and son Yazan (Aarya Batchu), have been in the states for eight years and have just become citizens. The play opens just before Christmas in the family’s barren apartment; Noura refuses to buy furniture for the place, even though they’ve lived there for several years. She also refuses to take the American certifications to return to her beloved career in architecture, although she continues to draw buildings in her free time. This Christmas, she has invited a fellow refugee from her hometown that she found on Facebook, an orphaned college student named Maryam (Layan Elwazani).

Having worked closely with a number of refugees at my last job and during my Americorps year, I’m particularly interested in learning about and listening to the refugee experience in this country. Obviously, this story is super topical, but it is never political or divisive. It’s simply the story of a family finding their place and attempting to reconcile with all that they’ve lost. Noura, in particular, seems to be clinging to her past in Iraq and struggling with decisions she’s made and trauma she’s experienced. This comes out in her behavior toward Maryam, who turns out to be far more modern than Noura expected.

I loved the relationship between Noura and Maryam, who come from such similar backgrounds but have built entirely different lives. Maryam is very defensive of her beliefs and decisions, and Noura, so desperate to build a relationship with this young woman she barely knows, finds herself saying all the wrong things. I can’t say too much without spoiling the plot, but I will say that I was extremely intrigued and impressed at the way Raffo connected every character and built separate relationships for each.

Beyond the story itself, the acting in this production is absolutely remarkable. I believed every second of every character, even from way up in the nosebleed section. Their dialogue was impeccable and felt incredibly real. They also did a great job with their body language, which is so important for the audience members like myself who are sitting further back and can’t make out facial expressions. Although everyone was fantastic, I was particularly impressed by Batchu. It’s rare that I see a cast with kids and feel that they kept up with the adults, but Batchu certainly did. To be so young and on stage with such power houses had to have been intimidating, but I fully believed every word he said and thought that he played Yazan excellently.

The performance I saw was still technically in previews ($15 tickets, wuddup?!?), so there’s a chance that tweaks will be made here and there before the official opening night on January 17. But, on the whole, I feel confident saying that this show is fascinating, heartbreaking, uplifting, informative, and beautifully, beautifully acted. I highly recommend you take the time to see it. This play hits on theater’s most important role: it connects us to people with lives different from our own, whether through the characters or through fellow audience members, and encourages radical empathy. We truly can’t know what someone else might be going through by looking from the outside.

The last line of the play sums up its theme better than anything I could write myself: “I don’t know how to let go and hold on at the same -”

Noura is playing at the Guthrie Theater’s McGuire Proscenium Stage through February 16.


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