“At the end of the day, we’re people,” says Amir Nizar Zuabi, the 43-year-old author-director of “Grey Rock,” a comedy-drama about an older Palestinian man who builds a rocket to the moon in his makeshift workshop. “We’re real people, like white people. We’re not just numbers of casualties.”
That humane ethos is what delighted Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for international programming, when she encountered Zuabi’s play more than a year ago, in a brief world-premiere engagement at the storied LaMama Experimental Theatre Club in Manhattan’s East Village. Her embrace was the catalyst for the play’s unusual trajectory, one that will give American theatergoers a rare look at a Palestinian play that has more sitcom overtones than political ones.
“I think Nizar is one of the great storytellers of our time,” Adams says. “Given the situation in Palestine, how they’re cut off from everybody and everything, I just thought this play is brilliant. Nizar is dreaming that this man is dreaming like anybody else would dream, and he makes this rocket. My heart was warmed to see this piece, because it was a respite from the norm.”
“Grey Rock” was recently featured in the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, where the cast of six reunited for the 95-minute work. Like the rocket being assembled by Khalifa Natur’s Yusuf, the production looks as if it has been put together with spare parts. You’re meant to reflect not only on a quixotic main character — whose strange mission is a community source of both wonder and pride — but also on an arts culture with bountiful creative aspirations and only limited resources.
The themes of the play seem tied directly to its own origins. Alexandra Aron, an American producer whose Remote Theater Project came into being for this production, lived in Israel in the mid-1990s and had occasion to direct a children’s play in Arabic in Ramallah, on the West Bank.
Years later, she would return to recruit Zuabi in her notion of developing a theater piece through which American playgoers could connect at a refreshingly human level to everyday Palestinians. “I would explain that I was interested in the relationship between the United States and Palestine,” she recalls. “I wanted it to be a play for Americans: ‘What is important that we know about you? How can you help us to see ourselves more clearly?’ ”
Zuabi, who grew up in East Jerusalem and trained as a director at the highly regarded Nissan Nativ Acting Studio in Tel Aviv, has mounted plays, mostly experimental, in Europe and at the Kennedy Center, where “Alive From Palestine: Stories Under Occupation” was presented in 2012. For this more conventional work, Zuabi says, he sought a metaphor that would have meaning for the people he grew up around and for the ones for whom he was being enlisted to entertain.
For many in the Middle East, “America is the head of the serpent, the cause of war all over the world. But I knew America had a much deeper effect on me,” Zuabi said over coffee recently near the Village’s Public Theater. “It defined my thought patterns; its TV defining my day-to-day life.”
As he explored how to make those ideas concrete, a friend recalled his strongest association with the United States. “He said, ‘I remember the moon landing.’ ”
That gave Zuabi his entree to a story that reflects more innocently on the values of an America that can indeed dream big. It was for this playwright-director of mixed heritage — “I grew up between the Montagues and Capulets,” he says — also a vehicle for laying bare the dualities that inform his own life. Zuabi is married to a Jewish woman and describes himself as Jewish, but his Muslim forebears figure with as much emotional vigor. And, he says, as a self-identified Palestinian, he moves seamlessly in and out of the tightknit theater world of the West Bank.
That complexity is reflected in his work life: He won’t have his plays produced in theaters in Israel that receive subsidies from the government. “Palestine is politics — it’s everything,” Zuabi says, adding with a laugh: “Dicing a salad in Palestinian territories is a political act.”
Of course, some will sense the aroma of politics even in a play that purports to keep it at bay, in the ominous offstage presence of Israeli authorities. For Zuabi’s part, though, “Grey Rock” is meant as a palliative, not a provocation.
“It’s so ridiculous and absurd that he decides to build a rocket,” the playwright says. “He’s doing it as an act of love. And the play was written with my different levels of love in mind.”
Grey Rock, through Saturday at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.