“Exile saves you even as it shatters you,” said Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese-born writer, director and performer who is one of the most-produced playwrights in France and Canada.
Mouawad knows whereof he speaks: He has spent much of his life in a kind of exile. Born in Lebanon in 1968, his family moved to France when he was a child, fleeing what turned into a 15-year civil war. The family later relocated to Canada, where Mouawad spent his adolescence and early adult years, graduating from the National Theatre School of Canada in 1991. He has founded or headed theaters in Canada and in France, where he now lives.
Mouawad drew on his peripatetic experiences to write “Seuls” (“Alone”), the solo show that will have its U.S. premiere next week as part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages series. Mouawad himself performs the piece, which features projections, live painting and virtual reality, as well as text spoken in French. (The D.C. performances will have English surtitles.) Fusing aspects of Mouawad’s biography with a fictional story line, “Seuls” meditates on identity, heritage and cultural alienation.
“It is an extraordinary tour de force, with all the layers it has as part of his storytelling,” said Alicia Adams, the Kennedy Center’s vice president for international programming and dance. Adams, who saw “Seuls” at an international festival in Bogota, Colombia, was particularly wowed by the show’s visuals.
Creating “Seuls” was originally a way to break out of an artistic rut, Mouawad said recently from Beirut, where he was acting in a movie.
The playwright is best known for his 2003 drama “Incendies” (“Scorched”), an epic tale about emigration, family secrets and wartime brutality in a country resembling Lebanon. “Incendies,” he said, was a big success, but people liked the play so much that every one of his subsequent scripts met with the response, “Oh, your play is very nice, but it’s not ‘Incendies’!”
The movies came calling: Denis Villeneuve’s film “Incendies” was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. (Washington has not been immune to the play’s draw: Forum Theatre mounted “Scorched,” in Linda Gaboriau’s translation, in 2010, and a Mexican production, “Incendios,” was part of the Kennedy Center’s World Stages festival in 2014.)
After writing a follow-up play, “Forêts” (“Forests”), which would eventually join “Incendies” and two other works to form a tetralogy Mouawad calls “Le Sang des Promesses” (“The Blood of Promises”), the playwright felt as though he was spinning his wheels.
He had reveled in time spent with actors while developing and rehearsing his plays, but he decided to do a solo show — to “just go in a rehearsal place alone. . . . Alone, like a child who’s going to play in his room, and see what is going to happen.”
During his stint of creative seclusion, Mouawad said he had an epiphany that led to incorporating multimedia elements into “Seuls.”
“[I can] write with video. I can write with sound,” he said. “I can write with words, but I can also write with silence. I can write with everything, and everything is writing.”
“Seuls” centers on Harwan, a Lebanese-Canadian graduate student in the “sociology of the imaginary,” who is struggling to complete his doctoral thesis on the work of the adventurous Quebec-born director-writer-performer Robert Lepage. (Lepage has been an inspiration to Mouawad in real life.) As he strives to sync up his schedule with the globe-trotting Lepage, Harwan grapples with memories and a family crisis.
Like Harwan, Mouawad seems to have done considerable soul searching about his family’s displacement from Lebanon. Asked whether he thinks he would have become a writer had his family stayed there, he quickly says no. But then he elaborates.
Had he stayed, he suspects, he would have joined a militia and would have continued harboring the sectarian antagonism that fueled the civil war. Raised in a Christian family, Mouawad has vivid memories of the exultation that swept through their Lebanese village upon news of the death of a Druze leader.
“We danced,” Mouawad recalled. “I didn’t know the guy, but I danced on the occasion of a man’s death! I was happy, because we had been taught that the Druze were all evil.”
Exile, Mouawad said, saved him from that cycle of hatred. “Because when you become an exile,” he said, “you become ‘The Other.’ You become the person that you detest, that you don’t understand, that is a stranger.” As a result, Mouawad suggests, the exile’s eyes are opened to other possibilities, such as theater and literature.
But that could be wishful thinking: On some level, Mouawad said, he needs to believe “that exile has been positive.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Seuls Sept. 18-19 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. In French with English surtitles. Tickets: $39-$60. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.