When playwright Rimah Jabr talks about Nablus, the West Bank city where she was born and raised, her voice changes. “It’s a beautiful city, and it’s mysterious. I feel like there are a lot of secrets there that not everyone can access. You need to be a little bit romantic to understand.”
Playwright/actor Natasha Greenblatt, born and raised in Toronto, interjects. “And there are layers, too – there’s this whole underground city.” She jumps into her own description of Nablus, where she spent time volunteering in 2009 and researching with Jabr in 2016.
We’re sitting outside the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, where the two artists have just wrapped up the day’s rehearsal for their upcoming production of Two Birds One Stone. The play, which they co-wrote during a residency with Why Not Theatre in 2017 (through an initiative called the Riser Project), is deeply autobiographical for both of them. For Jabr, it relays her experience of growing up in occupied Palestine, of longing to leave while feeling an obligation – both familial and ancestral – to stay. For Greenblatt, it interweaves her exploration of her Jewish heritage with the grief that struck suddenly at the unexpected death of her youngest brother.
The symbol of a house in northern Israel ties together themes of family, exodus and loss. Jabr’s character is the descendant of 1948 refugees, and her grandmother wants her to go to Israel and seek out the home she was forced to leave. Greenblatt’s character is the descendant of Holocaust survivors; her great-grandfather bought a house in Israel that same year, although he never lived in it. The possibility – or fantasy – that it may have been the same house forms part of the play’s political aura.
But the story’s heart is personal, and the play is at its most tender and affecting when it muses on what it means to glance backward at the pain and injustice of the past. Greenblatt’s character can’t understand why her great-grandfather never searched for his vanished family in Poland. “How can you not go there and look?” she asks, as the question ripples onto her own experience of tragedy (her brother died in an accident at summer camp far from home). Meanwhile, Jabr’s character is trying to focus forward; she wants to travel and find love and exult in the sort of freedom of movement she’s never known.
The play is something else, too: an active testament to its creators’ friendship. “It’s us making a play together. You feel that on stage,” Jabr explains. “You see that we work together, we negotiate, we compromise sometimes, we play each other’s characters.”
In 2015, once Jabr had finished studying theatre in Belgium, she visited her long-distance boyfriend in Toronto. A mutual friend introduced her to Greenblatt, who’d already written a play about the Middle East. They became fast friends, and once Jabr immigrated to Canada, the idea of writing together evolved naturally.
The overlap between work and friendship became particularly intense on a special day in August in 2016. Jabr and Greenblatt were racing against the clock to make a grant deadline but took an important break midway through the day. “We put on some random makeup and had to run to city hall – Natasha was taking pictures on the way – and she was the witness for my wedding,” Jabr says.
“Then we had lunch, drank some mimosas and finished the grant,” Greenblatt adds, shaking her head with a laugh.
“I have many friends,” Jabr continues, “but this is the first time I can be really open. I can talk to Natasha as my sister, like I can yell at her and be like NO!” – she beats a fist in the air – “and I can guarantee that I will not lose her.”
Two Birds One Stone had its first production at the Theatre Centre in May of last year. I ask whether there was any blowback in the light of the play’s polemical themes.
Jabr and Greenblatt exchange a look. They tell me the response was largely positive, speculating that audience members who may have been uncomfortable with the content likely stayed away. Jabr remembers a woman telling her that her Israeli boyfriend refused to see the show. “I thought: pity,” Jabr says. “I wish he had come.”
“We tried to stick to such personal stories; it makes them hard to criticize as they’re only our experiences,” Greenblatt says. “But we’re hoping to reach a broader audience this time.”
Two Birds One Stone plays at The Tarragon Workspace from June 21-30.