In Kitchens Across New York, 'Oh My Sweet Land' Serves Up Stories Of Syria The one-woman show centers on a Syrian-American who tells harrowing stories of Syria's civil war as she prepares a traditional dish. It's an intimate experience for both the audience and the actress.

In Kitchens Across New York, 'Oh My Sweet Land' Serves Up Stories Of Syria

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Many plays have been called kitchen sink dramas because of their attempts at realism. A new play takes that to the extreme. "Oh My Sweet Land" uses not only the sink but the stove, refrigerator, food processor, a chopping board and a very big knife in kitchens all across New York. In these intimate settings, audiences watch an actress prepare a typical Syrian dish and tell stories about the civil war. Here's Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The kitchen I went to in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, was clean and organized - baskets of lemons, rows of cooking oil. As music played on the radio, a woman with long, curly hair puttered around the kitchen, putting a package of meat in the fridge, sauteing pine nuts. Then she began to speak.


NADINE MALOUF: (As character) Since I came back, I make kibbeh again and again as if I want to close a hole in my soul.

AMIR NIZAR ZUABI: I had to guarantee that the audience tears up, so there's a lot of onion cutting.

LUNDEN: That's Amir Nizar Zuabi, the playwright and director of "Oh My Sweet Land." A Palestinian, he got the idea for the play several years ago when he traveled to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. He adapted several of the stories he heard. And since food and hospitality are a cornerstone of Arab culture, he included cooking.

ZUABI: I didn't want to do a horror show. It's important to remember that this is an attack on a culture. Not just the political situation, it's an attack on the way of life. And the loss in Syria is also this. It's the loss of normality, of just the ability to break bread together and meet.


MALOUF: (As character) I (laughter) remember my father standing at the window, shouting (foreign language spoken) to strangers when they walked by (laughter). Come in. Eat - people looking at the strange man holding a plate of food at the window, inviting passers-by in for coffee or food. (Foreign language spoken).

I had never done anything so difficult before (laughter).

LUNDEN: Actress Nadine Malouf not only tells the harrowing story of a woman who follows her Syrian lover to the Middle East but cooks kibbeh while she tells it.

MALOUF: I have nicked myself a few times. I've burnt myself with oil. I've - you know, wounds - war wounds.

LUNDEN: The Australian actress of Middle Eastern and European descent says dealing with the emotions and cooking...

MALOUF: It was a little bit like, you know, rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time.


MALOUF: (As character) All around us, Syrians argue loudly about politics.

LUNDEN: As the kitchen gets messier, so does the story.


MALOUF: (As character) We arrive in Tafas. Some of the buildings have been so heavily shelled, they seem to defy gravity. They look like lace, like concrete lingerie.

LUNDEN: Watching the play in this setting becomes almost painfully intimate for both the audience and the actor, says Nadine Malouf.

MALOUF: You tell immediately, you know, like, who doesn't want you to look at them. And I understand that because there's, you know, a safety in the audience being in the dark and the actors on the stage. And that's very safe for both parties. Here, no one is safe (laughter).

LUNDEN: After the show, audience members stood outside to chat and eat a piece of baklava. Allison Martin, a nurse practitioner, called the experience incredibly visceral.

ALLISON MARTIN: Being in the small space and the smell of the onions midway through really brings the far away to right here in front of us.

LUNDEN: And that's the point of "Oh My Sweet Land." The onions, spices and stories linger long after the final bow. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


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