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Essay

From the Artistic Director: Noura

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

“All plays we call great, let alone those we call serious, are ultimately involved with some aspect of a single problem. It is this: How may a man make of the outside world a home? And how, and in what ways, must he struggle — what must he strive to change and overcome within himself and outside of himself — if he is to find the safety, the surroundings of love, the ease of soul, the sense of identity and honor which, evidently, all men have connected in their memories with the idea of family?”
Arthur Miller, “The Family in the Modern Drama”

Given the continuing prevalence of the family play in American drama, I find myself frequently revisiting Arthur Miller’s seminal essay, “The Family in Modern Drama.” As a master of the form, Miller has particular insight into the way the intimate frame of the family play gives birth to realism at the same time that it serves as an anchor point for broad exterior social canvases. Simply put, the Family Drama sets up a dichotomy of inside versus outside. We can see this dynamic reflected fairly clearly in a play like Death of a Salesman. But in an immigrant family play like Noura, there are more twists in the dynamic. The outside world feels particularly unfamiliar. For the characters in Noura, Christian Iraqi immigrants celebrating their American citizenship eight years after their arrival, the dislocation feels particularly sharp. For Noura and her family, torn from the fabric of their homeland, the project of recreating a new home in a foreign country means recreating their community in their new home. Memories of home and community are intertwined.

In traditional families, East and West, women are usually associated with home. And in traditional family dramas, protagonists are often male and their struggles to recreate or rebel against home reflects this traditional binary. As more and more women have come to author family plays and establish women as the protagonists of their stories, the more we see the inside/outside dynamic Miller discusses embodied in these women. For Noura, the dichotomy of inside and outside is internalized. Her tenacious idealism lives in contrast to her painful memories. And her relationship to the outside world is just as conflicted. The promise of America is becoming as remote an ideal for Americans as it is for refugees and immigrants.

"For Noura and her family, torn from the fabric of their homeland, the project of recreating a new home in a foreign country means recreating their community in their new home. Memories of home and community are intertwined."

The most conspicuous scenic element in Noura is a Christmas tree. On the most tangible level, the tree evokes a mood of festive optimism, but more specifically, it also establishes the family’s Christianity. It’s a safe bet that if you put a Christmas tree on a stage — unless you’re staging A Christmas Carol — you probably have an eventual irony up your sleeve. Noura’s early memories of Christmas are attached to an Iraq that was an ecumenical culture, where families shared religious holidays with neighbors of all faiths. But in present day Iraq, Christians are a persecuted minority, and frequently victims of violence. Noura holds onto her fractured memory of that departed world by working on architectural plans for an idealized multiple-family home that represents once viable civic aspirations. Noura also channels her thirst for home and family into cooking a bounteous Christmas meal that she hopes will be enjoyed by friends and a young refugee woman, Maryam, she and her husband have sponsored and supported over the years. But Maryam carries a secret, and when she meets Noura, we learn Noura has a secret too. Maryam surprises Noura by her disinterest in mourning the past. She cares only about creating a future in America. Noura comes to understand that she cannot resurrect her memories. And she cannot reactivate her ideals without remaking them. She finds herself on a threshold between past and future, just like America. How can she unlock and redefine her identity in the present and how will she find harmony between that identity and her community? This is not just Noura’s question. This is America’s.