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    Playwrights Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi are seated at one of four tables that have been right-angled into a square during early rehearsals of their script for The Corpse Washer, which premiered March 1 at Actors Theatre as part of the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. In a large room between Actors’ three performance stages and its adjacent administrative offices, the co-authors of this novel-to-play adaptation are next to director Mark Brokaw and surrounded by actors brought into town to bring the story’s Iraqi characters to dramatic life.

    It’s the first week of February and still early in the process of rehearsals and revisions of this commissioned work. The Corpse Washer probes the human struggle — the toll on families surviving bloodshed — during the repeated wars and violence that have devastated Iraq since the 1980s. American intervention has triggered much of the tragedy. With this play, Wallace and Khalidi invite us to become intimately acquainted with the “others” — people we have perhaps previously caricatured, even demonized. They ask us to allow the Iraqis of Baghdad entry into our minds, even if they are welcomed less these days at our borders.

    Wallace, 58, has clasped the more unruly ends of her naturally gray-streaked mane into a ponytail, a loose strand of which she twirls before leaning over to Khalidi (pronounced Ha-la-dee) and whispering a thought. He nods in agreement. “We’re going to cut three lines here,” Wallace says, her voice low but heard by all. Attentive actors and members of the production crew dutifully make notes on their scripts. She has said during past interviews that the collaboration of bringing a work to stage — with directors, actors, even co-authors — is a major reason she has scripted nearly 20 plays, since beginning her writing career as a poet. (This will be her fourth script for the Humana Festival.) “I just love good stories, whether they’re in Louisville, Kentucky, or Palestine or Iraq,” she says. “I try to imagine lives that I know very little about.”

    Wallace grew up in two places: Prospect, Kentucky, and Amsterdam. Her father, Henry Wallace, was a gentleman farmer on land off Rose Island Road near the Ohio River who brought in exotic animals and opened to the public as Henry’s Ark. Once a correspondent for Time and Life magazines, he became a supporter of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, marched against the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and, with daughter Carla, for the Fairness Campaign in Louisville. After Sonja de Vries (the mother of Naomi and her five siblings) split with Henry, she returned to her native Netherlands, where she was a social activist and one-time member of that country’s Communist Party. Naomi became a product of both environments. “I guess my interest, if I’m going to say, as an American playwright is to know that the history of this country has always been intimately tied up with the histories of others abroad, mostly through war,” Wallace says. “I’ve always been interested in, as (Khalidi) says, our taxes at work abroad.”

    In the scene being rehearsed, Jawad, The Corpse Washer’s main character, has returned to the Baghdad university where he studied art before the U.S. invasion in 2003. The school has been bombed, but the aspiring artist sets to work on a sculpture amid the ruins. A guard enters and asks what he’s making.

    Jawad: “I’m using some of the debris around here for a new piece. I can see what I need to make in my head, but it’s just not there yet. But it will be. And perhaps with its genius will come my ticket to…elsewhere.”

    “That’s right,” a guard affirms. “University of Elsewhere’s the only place left intact.”

    “Elsewhere” proves elusive for Jawad, who pursues it in a variety of ways, only to be thwarted by events and by the tug of his family, which tends to the bodies of victims in Iraq’s seemingly endless upheaval. His struggle lies at the heart of Sinan Antoon’s 2010 novel of the same name, which both Wallace and Khalidi found so loaded with theater potential.

    Wallace and Khalidi have known each other approximately 15 years. Khalidi, 37, was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to Palestinian parents and reared in Chicago. As an actor early in his career, he appeared in one of Wallace’s earlier collaborations, Twenty One Positions: A Cartographic Dream of the Middle East. They later co-authored an adaptation of Returning to Haifa from a novella about life in the Palestinian-Israeli crucible. This family drama, about a Palestinian couple returning to their former home now occupied by an Israeli, was commissioned by the New York Public Theater, but, according to the Guardian, never made the stage there due to pressure from the theater’s board. It instead premiered at London’s Finborough Theatre in February 2018 to critical acclaim. Wallace and Khalidi also co-edited the book Inside/Outside: Six Plays From Palestine and the Diaspora, released in 2015.

    After reading Antoon’s The Corpse Washer, the playwrights sought a commission by sending proposals to 20 theaters, including a few in New York. Actors Theatre was the only one to show interest. “It’s really valuable for a festival of new American plays to sometimes venture outside our borders to other parts of the world, particularly to a land where America’s impact has been so profoundly devastating,” says Amy Wegener, literary director at Actors. “We aim to gather a diversity of voices and perspectives, so transporting audiences into the story of an Iraqi civilian whose life is upended by war felt like such an important opportunity to understand that experience.”

    The writing collaboration has been ongoing for two and a half years. Wallace lives for most of the year in Skipton, in northern England, and Khalidi currently resides in Chile. They met in France and other “elsewheres” for some of the writing, and they sent scenes back and forth by email, with the understanding that edits of one by the other would be accepted without challenge. “We had a very easy agreement that you could change anything you wanted of the other person’s work without asking them,” Wallace says. “If they saw it, they could say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ But unless you could legitimize it, we were very hands-off. It became quite fluid as we kept going over it. Even in rehearsal we joke with one another: We cannot remember who wrote that line.”

    Prior to the 11 a.m. rehearsal, Khalidi sits beside Wallace in a small conference room for an interview. He wears a long-sleeve purple T-shirt with a multi-colored keffiyeh wrapped around his neck. The stubble of his short beard nearly matches the sprouting growth on his head. He lowers his gaze as he forms his thoughts. The questions on the table are: How can this story, diary-like in the novel, be recast as great theater, and why present an Iraqi tale on a stage in faraway Louisville? “It’s a cinematic memory novel, in some ways,” Khalidi says, “but there’s a lot of imagery that felt so striking, so theatrical. And there was a lot of richness, we thought, to be mined in the characters. Also, the historical scope of the story: It’s epic in a way, but also very personal. That, I felt, gave us a lot to work with, even though we had to do some adapting and some dramatizing.”

    In The Corpse Washer, Jawad grows up in a Bagdad ruled by Saddam Hussein and confronts adulthood during the American occupation. Much of the story’s imagery involves the mghaysil (wash house), the place of business where generations of Jawad’s family have washed and enshrouded the Shiite dead prior to burial. The physical act of tending to Iraq’s deceased plays out onstage, and, following one particular tragedy, Jawad is expected to step in as the family’s next corpse washer. But he has dreams of becoming an artist and of escaping Iraq for another life.

    It no doubt will be a challenging evening of theater, but sensitive underdogs encountering hard truths — and the political situations that produce such casualties of history — are much of the attraction for Wallace and Khalidi. Her three other Humana Festival works peer out from the underside of history and do so in a variety of settings. The first, One Flea Spare (1996), is set among the quarantined ill in plague-ravaged 17th-century London. The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek (1998) references the infamous railroad span outside Louisville and follows the stifled ambitions of two rural Kentucky youths coming of age during the Great Depression. Her research on Louisville’s West End inspired the third, The Hard Weather Boating Party (2009), which implicates three men in a murder scheme against the head of a polluting Rubbertown chemical company. (Khalidi’s seven previous plays have focused on the Middle East and Palestine.)

    Social and political activism came early to Wallace and her siblings. Her parents were labeled radicals in conservative Louisville. According to a 1997 profile of her in the New York Times, Wallace attended her first protest march at age eight and spent portions of her childhood visiting friends in far less prosperous homes near the Rose Island Road farm. She grew up with money and privilege but credits much of her storytelling and flair for dialogue to listening to the conversations of those working-class and rural-poor families, both white and African-American. “I am moved,” she told the Times, “by the way the system breaks people in half, and still they rise up to tell their story again, with grace and eloquence.” Coming out of Hampshire College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a poet, Wallace brings a lyricism and personal voice to characters confronted by social and political roadblocks. She self-imposes the requirement to fully research the context of characters like Jawad. “To realize my own ignorance, I need to go to historians, artists, novelists to help me understand before I can write,” she says.

    Her early plays went largely unproduced in the U.S., debuting instead in England. Actors Theatre passed on two works with Kentucky connections before staging One Flea Spare, the hit of the 1996 Humana Festival. “I did find it ironic,” Wallace told the Times, “that the play I wrote about a young gay man from Kentucky who goes to the Gulf War (In the Heart of America) — that Louisville passed on that play. And they passed on ‘Slaughter City,’ about a meatpacking plant 20 minutes away from the theater. Then my British play, about the plague, that’s the one they took.”

    In The Corpse Washer, the comic and the tragic are intertwined, and the dialogue by Wallace and Khalidi comes across as unadorned, at times borderline profane, and slyly intimate. “I think we were attracted to the novel because (Antoon) makes no distinction between the living and the dead, between nightmares and reality,” Wallace says. “But at the same time, he manages to show a family unlike the families we often see on our stages that are dysfunctional. This is a loving family with a dysfunctional situation outside of them, which is war.”

    Wallace and Khalidi have become quite good at finishing each other’s thoughts, and he adds to her point. “Another thing that attracted us to this story is that it’s about an artist,” he says. “We’re lucky to hear about Iraqis at all, and if we do, they’re just statistics, if that. We certainly don’t hear about them as artists (in what was) an advanced, well-educated secular country before the American wars began.”

    There is, naturally, the question of barriers for an audience in Louisville — an audience anywhere in America, for that matter — with weariness of these conflicts in the Middle East. Here Wallace, ever the poet, is stirred considering one word. She sits up straight, her lively brown eyes animate and her voice strengthens. “I really appreciate you saying that about weariness,” she says. “It is my feeling that it’s not really about weariness; it is fear and uncertainty. I still in my life do not find and meet people who are like, ‘God, I’m just so tired of all this war!’ People are uncertain. They often don’t have the information that they might need to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is wrong.’

    “And I find Americans in general very hungry to get knowledge and find out more about something. I think sometimes weariness — and I can say this for myself too — is a mask; it’s a guard against our fear of vulnerability. Because if you truly imagine who are the people under American bombs, it’s very frightening and it can be very upsetting. It’s why we admire Sinan’s novel: He imagines what it’s like to be dead, to still be living, to be tired and not find much hope, but then still go on living and find some way to have hope.”

    Wallace mentions her three children. “This country has been at war and bombing the Middle East for (nearly) their entire lives,” she says. “What about the daughters there?”

    The Corpse Washer will run through April 7. Learn more here.

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Bringing Death to Life." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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