WASHINGTON, D.C. – Heather Raffo’s “Noura” is on stage through March 11 at the Shakespeare Theatre in D.C., and is a take on Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” through the eyes of a family of three Christian Iraqi refugees.
Disquieting, painful and powerful, the play is part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival and gives an intimate look into the lives of immigrants who have been displaced from their homeland. As Raffo states in the program notes, the issues of identity, modern marriage and motherhood are issues that many attempt to balance as they search for community. In this case, when displaced by violent ideologies and the Iran-Iraq War that left more than a half million people dead, the characters’ search for an American identity while holding on to their traditions becomes even more complicated.
Set in New York on Christmas Eve, Noura, an architect and her husband, Tareq, and teenage son fled Iraq eight years ago, and although Tareq is no longer a practicing surgeon, the family has prospered and feels safe from the violence they encountered in Iraq.
At the heart of “Noura,” as in “A Doll’s House,” is a series of secrets that drive the plot. These begin out small with the audience being introduced to Noura, played passionately by Raffo, smoking secretly on her balcony while looking out at the falling snow. (In Ibsen's “A Doll House,” Nora secretly eats macaroons).
The secrets escalate, however, with the visit of Maryam, an independent, young woman who was brought up in a convent in Iraq but has fled the Islamic State. Maryam was sponsored by Noura and Tareq, but she shows up with her secret that ultimately takes the family on a life-changing course.
As Noura, Raffo’s own Arab American heritage is the most significant asset to the play, and she portrays a woman confronted with the conflicts of modern individualism and traditional community and her attempt to reconcile the two. As the family readies their Christmas gifts, she is concerned about the violent games that her son, Yazen, may view while playing with his new PlayStation. When they go to church to attend the Christmas pageant that Yazen is performing in, Noura brings out her own father’s traditional headdress for Yazen to wear as one of the kings who brings gifts to baby Jesus.
This maternal affection plays out even more as the family prepares a Christmas feast of Iraqi foods as they did when living in Mosul where many would show up on Christmas Day. Yet, it is this very maternal and protective instinct toward family that is underneath the secrets in the play, which include the mystery of the family’s longtime friend, Dr. Rafa’a.
Noura shines a light on one immigrant family, but it is the story of thousands of refugees and immigrants around the world. The accompanying exhibit in the Shakespeare Theatre lobby of items that Iraqi refugees took when they fled their country is moving and thought-provoking.