'Noura' Revisits 'A Doll's House' From A Modern, Multicultural Perspective
Old Globe MFA graduate Heather Raffo has west coast premiere of her play
Old Globe and University of San Diego Shiley Master of Fine Arts Program graduate Heather Raffo is having the West Coast premiere of her play “Noura." She is the daughter of an Iraqi father an American mother, and her play is inspired by Ibsen's "A Doll House" and its earlier Nora.
Art has the ability to show us the world from a different perspective. Take Heather Raffo's "Noura" at the Globe's intimate theater in the round. When you walk in you may first notice a beautifully decorated Christmas tree hanging upside down from the ceiling. It is a familiar thing but you take notice of it because you are seeing it from a new angle.
That is also the case with Raffo's play that looks to Henrik Ibsen's famous play "A Doll's House" with new insights from a modern and multicultural perspective.
"My father was born in Iraq and my mother is American," Raffo said. "My dad's American now, too. So I would say since I was 20 I've been kind of bridging both of those cultures and both of those worlds and I have watched friends and family members and lots of people that have come to America from Iraq view their identity in a very personal and different way."
In the play "Noura," Raffo looks to an Iraqi family that is now American and living in New York in the 21st century.
"I think that what they're trying to embrace as I said before is the pull between community and individualism and America is really based on rugged individualism and that is good and bad," Raffo said. "I like that it offers a lot of things but when people come from communities and countries that the whole entire social fabric is about togetherness then taking those kind of individual steps is a push-pull and I think that we're all dealing with that, all Americans are dealing with that right now. We're seeing what happens when we have only an individualistic approach and how much more we need to root and community."
The Noura of the play is meant to reference back to Ibsen’s famous feminist icon Nora of "A Doll’s House."
"So this play kind of picks up as a push back to that very famous Ibsen story," Raffo said. "I mean the Nora Helmer of 'A Doll's House' wakes up to her individualism, right? And that's been prized as this beacon of feminist literature in the theater and I don't know what I feel about that. I kind of roll my eyes and say I don't know if I believe that's the exact approach, there's a whole way of thinking in Arab feminism that deals much more with community and how you move forward as a group rather than purely as an individual."
Johanna McKeon is directing "Noura."
"People who understand 'A Doll's House' are going to see the way that this play is both using that model and sort of punching through the model," McKeon said. "Because it's a more complicated story and it involves the Iraq war and it's set in the 21st century in the outer boroughs of New York City. So it's not brand new but it's still going to be disarming."
McKeon is tapping into the fact that Noura is an architect who expresses herself through physical space. She is trying to design a family home to accommodate more than 40 people and keep them interconnected through a space designed with a garden at its center and all the family homes opening into the center. That sense of being in the round is ideal for a theater where the audience will encircle the actors.
"She's living inside of a world with drywall in Queens but because we're in the round we just got to take the walls out of the equation," McKeon explained.
Raffo added, "Nora is an architect and everything about what she's envisioning to build both in her personal space and in the house she's imagining for her family is about what walls are keeping her and protecting her, and what walls she is pushing away. So when the audience and people themselves are walls that very much plays into how the gaze and the pressure of society is looking in on her and how they're embracing her."
McKeon is excited about the production design.
"So the audience is sort of allowed to be incredibly intimate with [the characters] and the design of the dissolving walls sort of opened up the whole world for us in terms of the way that we conceived it. We've tried to be actually quite expressionistic with the way that we've conceived the world; the world that you are going to be sitting in is the world in her mind and that is the world that the audience is experiencing without walls, which hopefully will be quite visceral."
Raffo has written about refugees and immigrants in the past and has found that narratives sometimes tend to reduce these kinds of characters to be either victims or the enemy.
"So to have a play where the characters are neither really served up a very different type of narrative that I think people in San Diego will really lean into," Raffo said. "The thing that is most exciting and really most extraordinary about this production is that we have 3 Iraqis in the cast and that is not an easy feat."
Nor is it easy to present a female protagonist that does not try to ingratiate herself to the audience.
"I mean the biggest thing that really distinguishes Noura is this lack of needing to be sympathetic," Raffo said. "There's so many ways women are hoping to express their opinion and they couch them in ways that make them palatable. Right? They play small or they play kind or they play nice in order to say the thing they came to say and she is discovering through the course of the play that didn't serve her well."
McKeon added, "I'm fascinated by the fact that this woman is sort of frustrated artist whose career has been obstructed by the forces of history and is still finding herself in her 40s. That is a story that you don't see so often onstage. And it feels like fresh terrain honestly in terms of like you know sort of national cultural conversation."
Or perhaps its familiar terrain that we just need to revisit from a fresh perspective.