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Playwright Heather Raffo on Noura, Imagination And Being A Woman In 2018

It’s no surprise that in times of hardship and division, some of the most compelling art is born. When feelings of repression and frustration bubble to the surface, artists and writers often create – if not to find answers than to express their complex emotions, escape from reality for awhile or spark vital dialogue. Noura is one such piece of art looking to start a conversation.

Written by award-winning playwright and actress Heather Raffo, Noura is a play exploring modern marriage and motherhood through the lens of Iraqi immigrants. At Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre starting February 6, Raffo’s play follows the titular character and her husband as they get ready for their first Christmas in New York as U.S. citizens. But a visit from a young Iraqi refugee upheaves the couple’s life together, and they must put a mirror up to their own experiences.

Noura first began to take shape through the playwright’s personal narrative initiative, Places of Pilgrimage. During three years of workshops, Raffo talked with Arab American women living in New York City, exploring themes of identity and belonging in their conversations. After listening to the women’s harrowing stories of leaving home, Raffo decided to show the women A Doll’s House.

Henrik Ibsen’s play opened up the group’s ongoing dialogue about the struggles of being a modern woman with ties to both the Middle East and America.

Raffo says her main inspiration for Noura came from having an Iraqi parent. In 2014, Mosul – the Iraqi city where Raffo’s father was born – was seized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and panic caused the city’s inhabitants to flee. Things worsened in 2016 when the city became a battle ground between ISIL and the Iraqi government, which was backed by the U.S. The city was eventually liberated, but the damage was already done.

Raffo says much of what she poured into Noura came from the feelings she and her family had watching the turmoil happen from afar. Immigration is not new to Raffo’s family, though. Throughout her family’s history, there have been many waves of immigration, and the playwright says that different waves see things differently, which she highlights in Noura.

Beyond immigration, her play is also about being a female – a mother and wife in a new country; a young, female refugee; and a woman in the 21st century. These themes, in addition to being written by a woman and featuring female leads, makes Noura a natural fit for DC’s second Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which puts a spotlight on the works of female playwrights.

The festival, which runs through March 14, is designed not only to share the stories these playwrights are telling at local venues, but also to start conversations around what role women play in the theatre world. Dahlia Azama, who plays the young refugee, Maryam, says she often notices that most female Middle Eastern roles in plays and TV are weak characters.

“It drives me crazy because there’s so many strong, [Middle Eastern] women,” Azama says during a joint interview with Raffo about why she was drawn to her character.

Raffo expresses excitement in being part of the festival, especially since the conversations created around these plays will be a larger, more collective dialogue than if these productions stood on their own.

“This festival is different from all others because it’s happening in the early months of 2018, hot on the tails of #MeToo and a woman losing in a run for president. This moment in time has never, ever happened before in America.”

Raffo continues, saying what makes this festival so unique is that it’s happening in DC, our country’s political hub where many major institutions have joined together to premiere female playwrights in the midst of a major upheaval surrounding women. Raffo’s question is whether the American theatre will be as brave as this moment in history.

“Women writers have always been brave, so will the theatre pick up on it?”

“I think they’ll have to,” Azama answers, suggesting that otherwise they’ll get called out.

“I think it’s true, but will they challenge their audiences?” Raffo asks. “Yes, we want to get the predators out, and maybe we want equal numbers, but are we going to challenge them with challenging plays? Or are we going to go back to another sleepy state until the next uprising?”

These complicated questions don’t have simple answers, and plays like Noura may not be able to offer the necessary solutions. But they get people asking questions, and starting the conversation is half the battle.

Noura will play at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre from February 6 to March 11. Tickets start at $44, but check www.shakespearetheatre.org for Under 35 deals and don’t miss Young Prose Nights (YPN) on Wednesday, February 21 at 7:30 p.m. and Friday, March 2 at 8 p.m.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre: 450 7th St. NW, DC; 202-547-1122; www.shakespearetheatre.org