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First Down

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 24, 2022

Olivia AbiAssi, Hend Ayoub, and Peter Romano
Photo by Carol Rosegg
The use of all capital letters in writing an email is considered to be the equivalent of SHOUTING! The same could be said of the playwright SEVAN, who spells his name using all capital letters, because his play First Down, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters, is engulfed in a great deal of shouting.

This diatribe of a play, a production of Noor Theatre, a company that is dedicated to supporting the work of writers of Middle Eastern descent, is about a star quarterback's decision to "out" himself as a Muslim by praying during the Super Bowl. Overall, First Down, directed with great intensity by Johanna McKeon, comes across as both an expression of long-suppressed anger, frustration, and shame felt by its lead character, and a manifestation of the playwright's own self-described role as a "disruptor of all things Dominant-Culture related."

The disruptive fury is being unleashed through and by pro athlete George Berri (Peter Romano, giving an appropriately unbridled performance). George is a Lebanese-American Shia Muslim by birth, raised in Butte, Montana, by immigrant parents who, like many in their position, wanted their son to grow up as American as apple pie. George has obliged, and in exchange for giving up his cultural and religious heritage, he has draped himself in his All-American looks, gone to Notre Dame, and is now on the cusp of football fame as the presumptive winning quarterback at the Super Bowl.

When we meet George, he is at the tipping point of his identity crisis, which he subsumes more generally into the broader issue of Islamophobia within the United States. His solution to both is to offer up a Muslim prayer during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Given his popularity as a sports figure, he expects his action will lead to the kind of public acceptance that one of his heroes, the British soccer star Mohamed Salah, has had. "Because of him," George says of Salah, "Muslim hate crimes dropped; those white people are saying that Islam is compatible with British values."

First Down is laid out in three long scenes, all of them taking place in a locker room the evening before the big game. The first section of the play consists of an increasingly strained conversation between George and the team's coach, Bill Fitzgerald (Larry Bull), for whom the Super Bowl is the payoff of his career. For George, however, what matters most is to let the world know who he is. Bill tries to be supportive of his star player, but he wants nothing to disturb this all-important game, a sentiment he shares with George's long-time friend and agent Marina (Olivia AbiAssi, savvy and confident), who is also an Arab American, though, pointedly, a Christian. Marina shows up after receiving an email from George outlining his plan. "We got a call from 'The Tonight Show' for an appearance," she tells him. "GQ wants to schedule a shoot with a feature article. SNL expressed interest in you hosting. And are you completely insane?"

When neither Bill nor Marina is able to convince George to hold off for another time and place, they are joined by George's mother Hana (Hend Ayoub, giving a terrifically moving performance). With the arrival of Hana, the middle section of First Down accomplishes what all the shouting fails to do, which is to connect heart-to-heart with the audience. Much of the conversation between Hana and George is conducted in Arabic, with no translation provided until near the end of this scene. Yet, through intonation and gestures alone, we have little trouble understanding the story that unfolds, of the heartbreaking difficulties Hana and George's father faced when they first came to the United States, and why it is that she wants George to reconsider his decision.

This section of the play is beautifully written and acted, as it lays out the terrible price that is paid by so many immigrants to this country. Yet even as Marina has to lead a deeply shaken Hana from the scene, George's determination is fixed. The entire last third of the play is essentially a tempest of rage, which includes, among other things, a recitation of the names and ages of many of the murdered victims of Islamophobia. It is a lot to absorb, but it also serves as a possibly unintended reminder of other such lists: the names of Jewish victims on display at the Holocaust Museum; the names of Black victims intoned in Janelle MonĂ¡e's song "Hell You Talmbout"; the victims of AIDS whose names appear on the walls in Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart; and, yes, even the names of the dead from the attack on the Twin Towers.

There is no doubting that SEVAN is a powerful and decidedly passionate playwright with a great deal to say about Islamophobia in the United States. But if you want to change hearts and minds, tell George to stay home and send in Hana instead.

First Down
Through March 5, 2022
Noor Theatre
59E59 Theaters, Theater C
59 East 59th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: