NEW YORK - Twenty strangers have gathered in the dining room of a New York City apartment as a woman with long dark curly hair putters around the kitchen, putting a package of meat in the fridge, sauteing pine nuts. They settle into chairs, and she begins to speak.
"Since I came back,” she tells them, “I make kubah, again and again, as if I want to close a hole in my soul."
Welcome to Off Off-Broadway, and the one-woman play "Oh My Sweet Land." It is a harrowing story of a Syrian-American woman who follows her Syrian lover to the Middle East, and actress Nadine Malouf whips up meat croquettes as she tells it.
An attack on a way of life
The play, written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, was produced in London in 2014, and is now being performed in different kitchens all around New York.
Zuabi, a Palestinian, 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.
"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, an Australian actress of Middle Eastern and European descent, says it's a challenge to deal with the emotions of the story while cooking.
She compares it to rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time, adding, "I have nicked myself a few times, I've burnt myself with oil. You know, wounds. War wounds."
No safe space
Watching the play in this setting becomes almost painfully intimate, for both the audience and the actor.
"You tell immediately, you know, who doesn't want you to look at them,” Malouf says. “And I understand that because there's, you know, a safety in the audience being in the dark and the actors on stage. That's very safe for both parties. Here no one is safe," she notes with a small laugh.
Watch: Nadine Malouf in a scene from Amir Nizar Zuabi's play, Oh My Sweet Land at a home in Brooklyn. (By The Play Company)
After the show, audience members milled outside on the sidewalk to chat and enjoy some baklava. Among them was Michael Yuen-Killick, the host for this evening’s performance. He had to clean out his kitchen and dining room for the event, but was happy to open his personal space to 20 strangers.
“It's a fantastic opportunity,” he insisted. “I mean, how often do you get to have a show performed in your house? Not very often.”
One of those strangers, Allison Martin, a nurse practitioner, called the experience “incredibly visceral.” "Being in the small space and the smell of the onions midway through ... It really brings the far away to right here in front of us."
And that's the point of "Oh My Sweet Land" - to have the onions, spices and stories linger long after the final bow.