The Family at Breakfast

Mona Mansour’s Vagrant Trilogy put a subtle, unapologetic portrait of a Palestinian life on a major New York stage.

Ben Gassman
June 10, 2022

Rudy Roushdi, Nadine Malouf, Hadi Tabbal, Tala Ashe, and Osh Ashruf in The Vagrant Trilogy.

Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Public Theater

Over the past several decades, New York theater concerned with Palestine has been more often argued about than seen. Every few years, a high-profile play centering a Palestinian perspective almost makes it to a wide audience, gets pulled at the last minute, and then finds eleventh-hour refuge in a truncated run at an alternative venue. In 1989, the Public Theater pulled an invitation to East Jerusalem company El-Hakawati to present their play The Story of Kufur Shama, a collage narrative of exile and wandering focused on the diaspora of a fictional Palestinian village that was ethnically cleansed in 1948. The Public canceled the run days before El-Hakawati was to leave for a US tour, citing fear of offending Jewish audience members, despite the fact that the play was co-authored by an Israeli Jew and had already been performed extensively throughout Israel. (In canceling the play, Joe Papp, the Public’s Artistic Director, and otherwise the boldest major programmer of politically “controversial” work in 1980s New York, made shallow recourse to “balance,” saying he’d “never produced an Israeli play.”) In a reprise of this two-step in 2006, New York Theater Workshop programmed and then pulled My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a diaristic one-woman play about an American activist crushed to death in Gaza by an IDF tank during the Second Intifada. Most recently, in 2017, the Public invited the Freedom Theater, based in the West Bank city of Jenin, to stage another Second Intifada-inspired play, The Siege, this one centered on Palestinian fighters taking sanctuary at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The play was scheduled, then canceled; the show wound up running at NYU’s Skirball Center, accompanied by a bevy of essays and panel events to legitimize the decision.

Understandably, then, when I spoke to Mona Mansour, a New York-based Lebanese American playwright, whose multigenerational Palestinian family saga The Vagrant Trilogy premiered last month at the Public Theater after more than a decade of development, she spoke about it in the conditional tense, even though it had already been in previews for a week. “As of this moment, it feels like this play’s going up,” Mansour—who is 56 and has been steadily amassing notice over the past two decades—said with a laugh. “Now I’m like, ‘The programs are printed, people have gotten programs.’”

The Vagrant Trilogy is a choose-your-own-adventure story with no good choices, delivered as a series of three plays that stretch over three-and-a-half hours, with two intermissions, in the world of the audience, and over almost half a century in the world of the characters. It centers on Adham Al-Ahawany, an ambitious young scholar—played flexibly across ages and languages by Hadi Tabbal—who leaves his village outside Jerusalem to give a talk on William Wordsworth at University College in London in the spring of 1967, days before the Six-Day War breaks out. In the first play, The Hour of Feeling, he and his new wife, Abir—performed with grounded charisma across still more varied linguistic topography by Tala Ashe—are confronted with the terrible choice of staying in London, where they know no one, or returning home to a West Bank now occupied by the Israeli army. Which do they choose? Which should they?

Over the next two plays in the trilogy, Mansour dives deeply into the conditional tense of these questions by exploring both options, each tracing a possible life for Adham and Abir stemming from their choice in the spring of 1967. (It will be like the movie Sliding Doors, a member of the six-actor ensemble tells us in a prologue.) In the second play, The Vagrant, it is 1982; Adham and Abir have stayed in London and are now divorced, though still share weekly dinners. Adham has a university post, not at University College but at a more modest East London institution, and his major concern is tenure. Abir is engaged to someone in the Palestinian struggle, an Eton-finished child of diaspora, and is primarily concerned with the future of Palestine. 1982 was not chosen at random: This was infamously the year a Lebanese Christian militia massacred hundreds if not thousands of Palestinian civilians in the Beirut neighborhood of Sabra and the adjacent refugee camp Shatila, on orders from the IDF to clear PLO fighters from the area. In the play, Adham’s brother Hamzi—living in another Lebanese refugee camp, stateless since the family was pushed out of their village in the Galilee during the Nakba—keeps trying to reach him over staticky phone lines, as civil war rages. In the third play, The Urge For Going, Adham and Abir did go home in 1967, and we are dropped into that life in the early 2000s. Here, they too are in that Lebanese refugee camp, their marriage is intact, they have two young adult children, and they are all crammed together in “temporary housing” with Abir’s brother Ghassan and Hamzi—reanimated since we’ve watched second-play Adham grapple with his death from afar.

“Politics is the family at breakfast,” reads an epigraph to the Trilogy from Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti, who died in 2021. “Who is there, and who is absent and why?” Over the last decade in New York, theater engaged with Israel/Palestine that has reached wide audiences has tended to dwell neither on family nor politics, but on skeptical strangers warming up and making nice: Egyptian police musicians and Israeli provincials with long-gone childhoods in Arab capitals singing the Middle Eastern standards of Umm Kulthum together in The Band’s Visit, a nebbishy Israeli negotiator and a suave PLO apparatchik connecting over the experience of parenting in Oslo. Both productions invited Jewish audience members to congratulate themselves for humanistic care without provoking much self-reflection or concession, sort of like the Oslo framework itself. By contrast, The Siege, which almost reached a large audience, was full of rage and camaraderie but devoid of character, and ultimately more interesting for the material conditions of its genesis (it was made in a refugee camp) than its aesthetics. Into this void steps Mansour, seemingly driven both by the common sense of Barghouti’s formulation about family as politics and by Papp’s anticipatory anxiety about New York audiences. The dramaturgical wellsprings of good old-fashioned family dysfunction and frustrated ambition become her means of evading the censors while still spotlighting the brutality of Palestinian peregrination.

With Adham, Mansour gives us a protagonist—almost an antihero—for whom there are higher forms of human attainment than “the cause.” Again and again, he finds that questions of displacement and home cannot be evaded or sublimated even in the depths of Romantic poetry. Successful academic papers cannot fully override suspect identity papers. Contingency and precarity are the ruling principles. And still, Adham—arrogant, stubborn, ironic, narcissistic, selfish, gentle, humane, poetic, scholarly—is not a collectivist. He wants nothing more than to be released from his contextual tether.

Mansour playfully drops Adham into the fractious landscape of the British academy, where tensions over the aftermath of empire play out through scholarly quarrels. Early in the eponymous second play, Adham visits with Jenkin, a steady English drizzle of microaggressions on his tenure committee, embodied with winking obliviousness by the actor Ramsay Faragallah, whose own family was displaced from Palestine in 1948. (It is a fruitful convention of the Public’s production, directed by the British actor-director Mark Wing-Davey, that all characters, including those playing white, British characters, are performed by actors of Middle Eastern ancestry.) Jenkin wonders with sideways subtlety why Adham doesn’t bring his “outsider perspective” into his scholarship, suggesting it might help his colleagues “understand postcolonialism, Frantz Fanon, all that.” Shortly afterward, in a tutoring session, Adham finds himself nudged out of the stanza of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey he’s trying to elucidate, his New Critical aperture now challenged by students who demand historical context. A bomb has just killed 11 soldiers and some horses in London, and Adham’s undergraduates, reflecting on Wordsworth’s allusions to the French revolution, also want to talk about the IRA. All three get republicanism and the desire for self-rule; two casually sanction the violence, one is abhorred by it. Adham does not want to talk about the IRA. But despite his strong resistance to discussion of resistance, which Tabbal’s strained physicality makes palpable, Adham enters the fray with an offhand joke about the horses and dismisses the bombing as “an incident.” His glibness sets off his student Fiona; Adham responds by calling her a “proud little Englishwoman”; Fiona storms off with the moral high ground. Adham is left ashamed as a teacher and worried, reasonably, about his position. A couple of scenes later, Jenkin returns in a dramatically lovely volte face, not to talk about Fanon or the PLO, but to sniff out how “the Palestinians” are reacting to the atrocity in London, leaving Adham, and the audience, with the heavy premonition that there will be no tenure.

Fiona and Jenkin are momentary adversaries, the incontestable Britishness of each jostling Adham’s own precarious claim on Englishness. But Adham’s most interesting on-stage adversary in the second play is Abir’s fiancé Jawad, an embodiment of second-generation Palestinian diaspora guilt, born into material comfort and a new language, but growing up with the inheritance of dispossession, trauma, and unfulfillable obligation. Jawad’s projects to improve villages he’s never been to, his lack of rudimentary Arabic comprehension, his awkward deployment of religious phrases to glue himself to an identity he can’t quite see the contours of, are, on the surface, comical to Adham. Adham cracks jokes in Arabic that fly over Jawad’s head but make Abir laugh. He’s not impressed that Jawad keeps up with the lives and deaths of Palestinian poets; Adham is above basing his own literary predilections in ethnonational affinity and he knows Jawad can only read these poets “of theirs” in translation if he reads them at all. But Jawad is home in Britain in a way Adham will never be—no matter how much his consonants have softened in 15 years, no matter how much he pushes from his waking consciousness the Galilee of his childhood or the hills outside Jerusalem where he first met Abir.

Still, the real antagonists are mostly outside The Vagrant Trilogy, sometimes extra-textual, sometimes just offstage. They are systems and ideologies which show themselves in the circumstances of characters we’ve come to care about. The most devastating offstage villainy is introduced when the family is cooped up in a refugee camp in the third play, which is the slowest play, the saddest play, the play of the interminable family breakfast. In a nod to the Lebanese civil war that punctuated her own American childhood—and perhaps also in anticipation of the defensive reflexes of her New York audience—Mansour has ascribed the most flagrant single act of devastation visited upon the family—a brutal beating, recounted, not staged, that has left Adham and Abir’s son Jul with intermittent aphasia—not to an agent of the Israeli state, but of the Lebanese one. Of course, one could take up the path from there, but it is part of the strategic elegance of the plays and their attention to the complexity of geopolitical reality that the explicit buck stops where it does.

At the end of the third play, Adham and Abir’s daughter Jamila does get a chance to leave the camp to pursue an education. A choice again: the self or the family. The family or the people. Adham watches his daughter seize the opportunity to leave that he once had. He’s sad; he plays cards, he doesn’t read anymore unless he can be goaded into closer analysis through offense at Jamila’s misreading. He dismisses the factional involvements of Abir and his brother-in-law in the same way that he mocks Jawad’s activism from abroad in the second play. But when he laughs at Jawad, there is a horizon; here in the camp, there is only resignation.

In conversation, Mansour was blunt about her protagonist’s fallibility. “He’s not a model for how you should live your fucking life,” she told me. “I wanted [my audience] to hear some of the Arabs trash-talking other Arabs, because we do that. We bitch and complain.” Rather than create a “press release that has been vetted where you are going to hear only good things about the earnestness of these people and the value of their struggle,” she wanted to focus on a character utterly “fucked up” by the catastrophes of 1948 and 1967. “What is it to not reconcile yourself with what those losses are?” she asked.

Mansour’s patient dramatization of Adham’s failure to reconcile his losses or evade his containment represents a real accomplishment: A subtle, unapologetic portrait of a Palestinian life made it to a major New York stage. When I spoke with Mansour, she reflected on the weight of this representational imperative on her work at large. Toward the end of her play Unseen, a thriller about a conflict photographer running through July at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a dying woman tries to inventory the things in the space around her, but what emerges, strangely, are the names of women she knew in Gaza years earlier. “You know these captions you see for photographs that say, like, ‘An Arab woman stands in the rubble’?” Mansour asked. “Maybe the play was written just for an audience to hear these names.” At the same time, she added, the inclusion of the names was not premeditated—they came as a surprise to her in the course of revising the play, like unexpected visitors.

Whereas the first two plays of The Vagrant Trilogy are spiked with moments that feel similarly uncanny, where naturalism is jostled in revelatory ways, the third play, set in the camp, feels more constrained by consideration of imagined audience than buoyed by it. Jul has been intellectually disabled, Hamzi is beaten for stealing a brick to fix their crumbling house, Jamila needs papers that don’t exist to sit for an exam that could give her an exit visa, the library keeps closing earlier, the electricity goes out. In attempting to represent so many of the indignities that can befall a dispossessed family while also tying up a number of plot strands in the course of a final hour, Mansour leaves little room for surprise. I can’t help but wonder what else might have emerged absent the pressure to prove the humanity and suffering of Palestinians to her intended public. Yet despite these limits, Mansour and her team have left us with a rumination on the relations between an individual, a family, and a Palestinian identity that makes neither a hamstrung attempt at balance, nor an agitprop show of resistance. As rare as a play about Palestinians is on New York stages, a play about a richly drawn, deeply sympathetic, and deeply flawed Palestinian character, with no Israeli as caricatured villain or unexpected mensch, is truly novel.

While I left Lincoln Center after Oslo simply angry at the Upper West Side, I walked out of the Public after The Vagrant Trilogy still lost in the world of the play, thinking of Adham’s frustrated ambitions and of what it means to reconcile yourself to terrible loss for others in exchange for the perceived safety of your own kind. Though this Palestinian epic ran as programmed and the house was full at the preview performance I attended, Covid snags left it with only a week of performances after officially opening and likely prevented it from reaching as wide an audience as it was positioned to. Well, next year on Broadway. I’d like to send my parents.

Ben Gassman is a playwright from Queens. His most recent play, Botte di Ferro (2021), was developed with the support of Yaddo, NYU Florence, Casa Zia Lina, and Queens Council on the Arts.