“Family secrets” usually manifest in two modes: tragic or tasty. The former has been the grist of art for millennia: murder, incest, betrayal. The latter’s more felicitous: closely guarded recipes for generational dishes. Domestic pain and culinary craft combine to quietly wrenching effect in This Is Who I Am, a father-son rapprochement by Amir Nizar Zuabi streaming at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through January 3.
This kitchen-sink (well, kitchen island) two-hander joins other recent projects that make the most of online limitations: The Wolves at Philadelphia Theatre Company and Heroes of the Fourth Turning at Wilma Theater (also in Philly). The first maps a Zoom grid to Sarah DeLappe’s cross-talk-heavy portrait of a teenage girls’ soccer team. Wilma, meanwhile, bypassed social distance to film the Wyoming-set Heroes in a pandemic bubble in the Poconos. Digital met dramaturgy more than halfway, with results that are satisfying to watch and a bid for a wider audiences.
In comparison, This Is Who I Am is basic: actors in New York and Virginia, static cameras, and 70 minutes of real time as an estranged father (Ramsey Faragallah) and son (Yousof Sultani) cook via video chat. Dad lives in Ramallah; his kid has emigrated to a U.S. city, gratefully far from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Their wife/mother died of cancer some years ago, and father still blames his child for not being there at the end. For his part, son barks at his parent for using too much salt, and ignores the old man’s dismissive attitude toward his profession (gallery curator). When not reminiscing or tensely bickering, they try to recreate the mother’s recipe for fatayer—small baked pies stuffed with spinach and onion, spiced with lemon and sumac. It’s not a complicated dish; the emotions bubbling inside these men are complex enough.
Although sincere and deeply felt, This Is Who I Am is somewhat trapped between the granular naturalism of the setup, and the stiffer patches of Zuabi’s script. When characters mix ingredients and knead dough, you should avoid food metaphors. The son recalls growing up in the West Bank, afraid and unwilling to fight Israeli soldiers: “I couldn’t find my place in that stew, where our heroes are clear,” he fumes. It’s a small objection, but such on-the-nose touches build up over 70 minutes of supposedly realistic dialogue.
To be sure, we need more Palestinian stories in the theater, but Zuabi is still threading the needle between ethnic allegory and vibrant drama. I caught another piece of his, Grey Rock, in January at Under the Radar. Following a Palestinian widower and engineer secretly building a rocket to the moon, it was a warm, earnest piece, even if—by the slick standards of institutional playwriting—heavy-handed. Even so, it had strong bones; I imagined Grey Rock plucked out of obscurity by a savvy screenwriter and transformed into big-budget Oscar bait.
The scale is more intimate in This Is Who I Am. I won’t spoil the secret revealed at the end, but it emerges with enough organic simplicity as to avoid the aftertaste of emotional manipulation. Suffice to say that grief and shame has cast a pall over this father and son, and some of that gloom will lift by the time the pastries have cooled.
For two actors, it’s a deceptively big acting challenge, made no easier by the medium. On the one hand, you want a pair of Method-type pros who will burrow into their roles and come up with fine-grained, messy, highly specific performances. These guys go from tutoring each other on chopping onions to ripping their hearts open to expose years of repressed feeling—in barely over an hour. How to do it? Our handsome, hearty, charismatic actors eschew accents and showy histrionics under Evren Odcikin’s respectful direction (which might have explored “found footage” aesthetics more). Full disclosure: I saw an early preview of this co-production between Woolly Mammoth and PlayCo, so perhaps by the time you stream it, the passions will have marinated more fully.
But even so, Skype, FaceTime and their ilk dull the edge of virtuosic realism, they reduce everything to contextless, ironized memes. And it’s not film, where cutting away, artful angles, and multiple takes deflect or heighten the rawness. In live theater, we have physical distance—so if Faragallah had wanted to explode and smash a plate, we could vibe with his rage without cringing like it’s a YouTube audition tape. I kept wishing the acting would get messier, uglier—before realizing that the medium drains authenticity and coarsens empathy.
Theaters across America are still puzzling out how to endow online delivery systems with theatrical values. There’s no single formula, and not every dish will come out of the oven a lip-smacking success. Still, it’s a privilege to hang around the kitchen, observing the chefs.