Theater Review: Jamil Khoury’s “Precious Stones”


When a playwright tackles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sexual identity issues, class issues, Arab-American community issues, and Jewish-American community issues (among others), in a 90-minute play, not much room is left for anything else — like character development and breathing room. And that’s the main trouble with Jamil Khoury’s Precious Stones.

Above: Leila (L), the Palestinian-American played by Amira Sabbagh, and Andrea (R), the Jewish American played by Nicole Pitman during a seduction scene in the play. (SRTP)

The premise is that a Jewish-American woman and a Palestinian-American attempt to create an Arab-Jewish dialogue group and fall in love in the process. However, the audience doesn’t get to see them fall in love. We see them debate the “greatest hits” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — the semantics of Israel’s “War of Independence” rather than Palestine’s “1948 War,” the UN partition plan, the tactics of the intifada (the play is set during the first intifada), and many other points often argued.

Indeed, there are moments of bonding between Leila, the Palestinian-American (Amira Sabbagh), and Andrea, the Jewish-American (Nicole Pitman), such as when they compare their family history (Leila’s family is from Jaffa but she grew up in Beirut while Andrea’s parents are Holocaust survivors). But their relationship seems sudden and somewhat awkward.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any possibility for chemistry between them. However, right after their first meeting, Andrea has pretty much already decided that she’s fallen for Leila, and not much interaction between them has transpired. And because there isn’t much natural development between the two characters, some questions are raised. Is Andrea in love with Leila or is she in love with the idea of being in love with Leila, a Palestinian-American? Which leads to the inevitable question: Is Andrea exoticizing Leila’s Palestinianness in an Orientalist fashion with a lesbian twist?

It is unclear whether Khoury is aware of this problem. The only time Andrea is called on this possibility is when Andrea’s ex-girlfriend Rachel (also played by Sabbagh — the two actors play six characters with amazing dexterity) asks if she fantasizes about Leila in a desert setting complete with camels. The rest of the time it is just assumed, barring one moment when Leila resists Andrea’s physical contact, that their relationship is based upon mutual attraction.

Why does this matter? Partly because of the ending. Andrea, upset that Leila won’t leave her husband (yes, Leila is married, to a gay Arab-American) and come out of the closet, tries to get Leila to become more open about their relationship. Leila, whom Andrea accuses of being too comfortable in her upper-class lifestyle afforded by her lawyer husband Samir, tells Andrea, “It’s not a fight I want to fight. I don’t want to be a martyr for the gay Arab cause.”

Their argument inevitably goes back to Israel-Palestine. Andrea, in a moment of desparation, tells Leila that she’s been waiting through the whole relationship to hear her say that Israel has a right to exist. Leila doesn’t budge, and retorts, “You are not my Israeli master here, this isn’t the West Bank.” Andrea storms off, and the story ends.

Who looks like the jerk? Leila, the wealthy Palestinian-American who refuses to make waves in the Arab-American community by announcing her lesbian identity — the woman who refuses to state that Israel has a right to exist. The audience has much more sympathy for Andrea, the progressive lesbian who started a Jewish lesbian dialogue group and tries her damnedest to get the Jewish community to reach out to American-Arabs.

But if Andrea’s infatuation towards Leila was based on an exoticization of the “Other,” and if her attraction was charged by a sense of danger by cavorting with the “enemy” (and it is clear that her boss at the Jewish Council considers Arabs to be enemies), then who is the more problematic of the two? Unfortunately, this question isn’t really grappled with in the play.

However, many other questions are. Some of the issues raised are really important, as when Leila corrects Andrea’s notion that Arab leaders told Palestinians to leave their homes in 1948. And there is an especially nice conversation between the two when Andrea pronounces Leila’s family’s city of Jaffa with a “J” while Leila explains the original Arabic pronunciation (Yaffa) in which the “J” is silent. Andrea mentions that she has been to Jaffa, noting that “it had a real Middle Eastern feel to it.” Leila procedes to explain that Jaffa, before al-Nakba, or the catastrophe, was the industrial center of Palestine, as well as its cultural capital.

A whole spectrum of issues are skewered in one particularly successful scene in which Leila and Samir are preparing to entertain Andrea and Rachel. However, Leila’s friend Bassima stops by, and, in true Arab form, Samir feels obligated to invite her along. The scene gets more complicated once Andrea rings the door and explains to Leila that she ran into her boss Esther from the Jewish Council and had to invite her as well.

In rapid-fire dialogue, Andrea says to the audience, “Esther looks as if she’d rather be standing in front of a firing squad,” and adds that, “Rachel procedes to touch and handle precious works of art.” Rachel, who finds Andrea and Leila’s secret relationship to be anachronistic and Leila and Samir’s living situation to be absurd, declares that only “a big faggot” could make such great hors d’ouevres, causing Samir to choke on his food.

Esther begins to argue with Samir about Israel-Palestine, and then asks Andrea, “You’re having sex with his wife and he doesn’t mind? Does he watch?” The feeble Bassima, who has no idea who Andrea, Esther, and Rachel are and why they’re in Leila and Samir’s home, is completely baffled by the whole situation and becomes even more freaked out after learning that Rachel is an AIDS activist.

But things come to a head when Bassima, whose husband was killed in Lebanon, is asked by Rachel what she does for a living. Confused by the question, she explains that she raises three children without a husband. But things take a turn for the worst after she shrieks to Andrea and Rachel, “My husband was killed! Murdered in fact by your people!” Rachel, perpetually amused throughout the scene, asks, “Lesbians? Lesbians killed your husband?”

Precious Stones could benefit from more comic relief like that found in this scene. Although attempted with noble intentions, the play bites off more than both it and its audience can chew, expecially considering that this 90 minute version of the original 145 minute play is being marketed as a touring production with high school and college audiences in mind.

That said, director Gregory Gerhard’s execution of the play with two actors is quite admirable. The continual back-and-forth dialogue between the various characters must require much stamina, and the transitions from one character to the next are seamless. The acting is solid, although Sabbagh’s Esther seems too much of a charicature of Jewish Americans, with an accent that seems more akin to one heard on Saturday Night Live rather than in the Jewish community of Chicago, where the play is set.

However, more character development is needed to make Andrea and Leila seem more complex, and not just about their Palestinian, Jewish, and lesbian identities. But because the play attempts to address all of these identities that can be filtered down into one or two-letter phrases like national identity, religious identity, sexual identity, and social class, there isn’t much opportunity to explore more nuanced human feelings. And, after all, isn’t that what we all have in common?

Related Links:

  • Precious Stones, Silk Road Theater Company

    Maureen Clare Murphy is an Arts, Music & Culture correspondent for EI and its sister site Electronic Iraq. She is editor of F-News and lives in Chicago.