Food for Thought
‘Chocolate in Heat’ Leaves a Bittersweet Aftertaste
Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab In America
Kresge Little Theater
Oct. 10, 7:30 p.m.
Written by Betty Shamieh
Directed by Sam Gold
Starring Betty Shamieh and Piter Fattouche
The Chocolate show was here at MIT. Betty Shamieh’s critically acclaimed Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab In America is currently touring college campuses nationwide, and the MIT Arab Student Organization’s well-publicized effort drew a full house Friday night in Little Kresge.
Chocolate, a play consisting of five interrelated monologues -- Need, Love, Ignorance, Sex, and Justice -- sold out at the New York International Fringe Festival in August 2001, and garnered glowing reviews in prestigious newspapers such as The New York Times and Time Out. It is currently playing off-Broadway at the Tank Theater in New York and represents one of very few pieces of theater written by an Arab-American.
Crowds of excited theatergoers filed into Kresge Little Theater to find a disarmingly simple stage: two chairs, a table, and a few props strewn on the furniture. No curtains were drawn to sever performing and perceiving spaces, and no lights were hung to illuminate and contrast sharply the space that lie beyond the audience’s reach. The sacredness of performance space thus summarily dismissed, Kresge Little appeared mundane, accessible, and open to intimate conversation between actor and audience.
But already the stage exhibited signs of nascent adventures. A champagne bottle and two tall flute glasses marked the controversial presence of alcohol. A red, aggressive pair of sparkling stilettos awaited their consummate dramatic moment. After a slight dimming of house lights and a moment of loud silence, the two actors slipped into their seats as if they had been there all along and poured champagne into their tall, fluted glasses. Then the mesmerizing explosion of movements and words unfold.
Betty Shamieh starred in three of the five monologues as vivacious and volatile Aisha. Her stage presence is at once earnest, delightful, and charismatic, and consequently makes Aisha endearing. Shamieh alternately dances, acts, belts out her anger with a spoken word-like cadence and flits about the stage as if consumed by a flame from within.
Piter Fattouche, running the gamut from a suffering Jordanian prince to a South Carolina-born prostitute who chews with her mouth wide open, is incredibly versatile in his acting and manner of speech. His performance glows with a boldness that derives from confidence on stage, which in turn must have surfaced after his many years in New York City as a hungry actor making his way up.
Piter knows how to knead the audience: where to lengthen his pauses, where to suspend the rising excitement, and how to hold the audience’s breath. Both actors are of equal and impressive caliber, no doubt marked by a serious and passionate commitment to theater that infects the audience.
The point of Chocolate, as Shamieh explained in a post-performance interview, is to present a show about humanity when her audience comes in expecting a show about Arabs. It is about transcending the “poor me” mentality of minority issues, and also about creating roles for Arab actors that do not involve desperate and violent manners of suicide.
How is growing up Arab in America different from the triumphs and tribulations of other second-generation immigrants? Chocolate promptly rejects this rhetoric of differences and our penchant for this rhetoric. Despite current misgivings toward Arabs and Arab-Americans in the popular media, and despite the obvious cultural nuances particular to individual ethnic identities, the Arab experience actually differs little.
Shamieh wanted to write a play with Arabs that focused on how their identity took shape within the current political climate, not simply focused on the political climate itself. The Arabs in Chocolate drink champagne and do not wear hijabs (head scarves). Here in America they have the freedom to party, expose the choreographed bouncing of bosom on center stage in a dance show, and use stilettos as weapons.
In the process of staking out a balance between inheriting the legacy of your ethnicity and being inherited into the racial melting pot of America, Arab-Americans encounter the same gritty, tangible human interactions that mark the day in the life of any other American.
This is not to confuse “Arab” with “Muslim” as interchangeable: the difference in levels of comfort with which Arabs and Muslims consider a fellow Arab drinking and talking about breasts runs deep. An insightful friend (Muslim, in fact) pointed out to me that almost none of his friends from the Muslim Student Association were present.
A subsequent scanning of Kresge Little Theater revealed merely two women decked out in hijabs, one of whom was AimÉe Smith PhD ’02 of the Green Rainbow Party. Smith’s pre-performance campaigning for the upcoming Cambridge City Council election was perhaps the most politicized moment in the evening.
At the crux of Chocolate was not politics, but passion -- a passion as sticky and delectable as chocolate. Both Shamieh and Fattouche brought forth a charged and indeed passionate performance, and Kresge Little Theater reverberated with applause long after the final blackout had concluded the show.