The Black Eyed
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 28, 2007
I was so ready to like this play! Betty Shamieh, a Palestinian-American, is writing here about four other women of Palestinian descent. One is a suicide bomber; another is the sister of a Muslim warrior during the Crusades; still another, provocatively, is Delilah (from the Old Testament). Each of this trio is, in her way, a martyr to the cause of her people. We meet them in an expansive yet claustrophobic pink-tinged anteroom that is presumably someplace in the afterlife: the women believe they are in heaven, but as they reveal their earthly lives to each other it starts to dawn on them that they may in fact be in another place. "How do you survive in a violent world and not be violent?" asks Aiesha, the teenage suicide bomber. Does Shamieh agree with this desperate young woman, or does she want us to find a peaceful solution to a centuries-old problem?
Aiesha's quandary is probably unsolvable, but it bears constant re-evaluation. In particular, I wondered as I watched The Black Eyed, what circumstance can drive a seemingly ordinary person to a place where the only possible next step is destruction of self and others? Aiesha says:
Others around me had lived more terrible lives and still wanted to live.
All I knew was that I couldn't breathe.
The world is ripe for a drama to bring Americans (and others) into the head of a young woman who can say that, who really means that.
Alas, The Black Eyed isn't that play. Shamieh never lets us closer to Aiesha's situation or deeper inside her heart and psyche. Instead she goes off on tangents—amusing and crowd-pleasing ones, like Delilah's account of her affair with Samson; metaphysical/spiritual ones about this limbo-esque place the women occupy; proto-feminist ones (frequently) about how a woman's looks really matter and about how rotten men have been through the centuries. I kept wanting Shamieh to stop dallying in territory that's been well-traversed and instead to show me something essential about Aiesha and people like her. But The Black Eyed is finally unfocused and sadly shallow.
The fourth character in the play is not a martyr. She's a Palestinian-American architect of contemporary vintage. When we finally understand what she's doing in this story, we realize that she's nothing more than a construct: call her the playwright's alter ego, or conscience, or a guide into the world of the play. But what do her problems—being conflicted about her heritage, being victimized by a glass ceiling because of her ethnicity and sex—have to do with the larger themes that The Black Eyed seems ready to trade in?
The play is written in blank verse, and director Sam Gold has followed the script's instructions, staging the piece intermittently as ritual, with choral/call-and-response elements. Paul Steinberg's set does nothing but call attention to itself and the play; ditto the arty lighting by Jane Cox and sound by Darron L. West. The ambitions of this piece are immense, but they are sadly unrealized.