Putting 'Arabian Tales' in a New Light

Kevin Reese, from left, Laith al-Majali, James Konicek and Jad Tabbara star in
Kevin Reese, from left, Laith al-Majali, James Konicek and Jad Tabbara star in "Walking the Winds: Arabian Tales" at the Kennedy Center. (By Carol Pratt)

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By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 7, 2006

The music surrounds you, mysterious and thrilling, the undulating rhythms and exotic melody conjuring up moonlight on silvery desert sands. But you're snapped back to reality as choreographer Rania Kamhawi barks out commands. This isn't a dreamy Arabian oasis; it's a rehearsal for "Walking the Winds: Arabian Tales," which opens Friday in the Kennedy Center's Family Theater. But the magic works for a moment, and the gritty work of preparing a world premiere musical drops away, transporting you to faraway places and long-ago times.

Theatrical magic is only part of what "Walking the Winds," a collection of Arabian stories, is about. A unique international partnership of theater artists from Jordan and the United States, the production is designed to build bridges between the two cultures by introducing American kids to a world they may know only through today's distressing headlines.

"We feel that a lot of times here in the United States our young people only hear or know about one facet of life in the Middle East," says American co-director Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas. "Through these stories, we want to introduce young people to literature and culture in a fun, educational way." The production is a mixture of acting, dance and music.

Lina Attel, a Jordanian director, actress and theater educator who is co-directing the production, finishes Lavrakas's thought: "We picked stories that have human values, educational values, stories that portray the beauty of the Arabian culture, its richness in music, literature and poetry. It's something the West is probably not aware of."

With an onstage role in "Walking the Winds," Zein Khleif, 13, a student at the Barrie School in Silver Spring, hopes her friends will see her and her culture in a new light. Some of her classmates might be surprised to learn that she speaks Arabic at home with her parents, who are Palestinian. "Sometimes I talk about my heritage, but I'm not sure how much my friends understand," Zein says. "So I'm hoping they'll see this and that will help them piece it together."

Zein is one of eight performers ages 11 to 15 in the musical. Four are of Arab or Arab American descent. They join six adult actors in bringing to life seven stories that the team of Jordanian and American playwrights that created the show expects will be new to most Americans.

Characters and stories from Arabian folklore and history are introduced through the travels of Arabic explorer Ibn Battutah, played by Los Angeles-based actor Laith al-Majali, who was born in Jordan.

The stories are full of adventure and romance, set to music and dance both traditional and contemporary. The set, with its Moorish arches and the suggestion of shifting sands, adds to the exotic ambiance. As in folk tales everywhere, animals and inanimate objects become characters.

More than a dozen theater professionals from the two countries have combined their talents for the show, which is a co-production of the Kennedy Center and the Performing Arts Center of Amman, Jordan, a project of Queen Noor's.

Attel speaks passionately about her two decades of work on international theatrical projects, saying intercultural artistic collaboration changes people. "This is powerful," she says. "This is much more powerful than what politicians do. If we really want to have peace and harmony in this world, which is becoming so difficult, we need to know each other."

A discussion with four of the young performers in the show illustrates the point. John Thomas Manzari, 13, who attends the Field School in Northwest Washington, and Nina Kauffman, 15, a student at Hereford High School in Baltimore County, were not particularly versed in Arabian culture before rehearsals. Becoming immersed in stories that go beyond the "1,001 Arabian Nights" canon familiar to many American kids has been a meaningful intellectual exercise, they say. But for Zein and Jad Tabbara, a 12-year-old who attends Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, it's much more personal.

Jad does not mention his Jordanian background much around his non-Arab classmates. "I don't talk to my friends about my heritage," he says. "It would be really amazing and really fun just to show them that along with being an American, I'm also of the Arab world."

Jad says that taking part in presenting tales of the Sumerian King Gilgamesh, the humorous Djuha and his figs, and the practical princess Jbene, among others, has deepened his sense of pride. And, he takes pains to point out, "for once I get to play who I really am." Then the actor in him takes over, and he adds, "It's actually harder than it seems to create who you really are onstage."

The producers plan to take an Arabic-language version of the show on tour in the Middle East next year. Lavrakas said she was slightly concerned because "musical theater is not an ancient Arabic tradition." But Attel thinks the production is universal. "There's a lot of adventure here," she said. "Kids love adventure, so when we talk about literature, we mean the poetry of the language that's been translated into English in a very nice way. The language is poetic, but the stories are about adventure, love, humor, magic and even monsters."

"WALKING THE WINDS: ARABIAN TALES"Through April 16 as part of the Imagination Celebration series and geared toward ages 9 and older, at the Kennedy Center Family Theater, 2700 F St. NW (Metro: Foggy Bottom-GWU, with free shuttles). Tickets are $15. 202-467-4600.http://www.kennedy-center.org. Friday's performance is sold out, but other show times are Saturday and Sunday at 1 and 3:30. Shows next weekend are April 15 at 1, 3:30 and 7, and April 16 at 1 and 3:30.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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