Sulayman Al Bassam’s Petrol Station, which will have its world premier at the Kennedy Center this Friday (followed by performances Saturday and Sunday only), is an extraordinary new play that arrives at our nation’s capitol with such uncanny timing it will make your head spin. The work is feverishly in-tune with both the unhinged state of our political life and the chaos that rages throughout much of the Middle East.
A Kuwaiti playwright, celebrated for his fearless explorations of political and religious issues roiling the pan-Arab world, Al Bassam’s choice to cast only American actors in a story set in the no-man’s land of an unnamed Arabian Gulf state will reverberate with the viewer long after the play is over in profound, unexpected ways.
The story unfolds at a desert petrol station where two half-brothers – the Cashier (a country national) and the Trafficker (a dual national) – compete for control of a gas pump whose meter is lost, while their indentured servant (read slave) Joseph, carrier of family secrets, serves seemingly at their command. Their aging father, aware that fuel is being illegally siphoned off to militias fighting in a nearby country’s civil war, commands his sons to find the missing meter in the belief that it will reinstate order at the station and possibly liberate them and their country from the stranglehold of oppression.
The Meter has been lost and in its place,
comes abuse and fear that tatters sleep.
Evil has taken root in this Station;
corruption, like cancer, has seized its bones.
…find the Meter, the bell of truth will toll.
And so the search begins. The meter must be found. The Manager, a Bedoon (stateless Arab and bastard son), directs his migrant workers Bayu and Khan (Al Bassam’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), to dig. Into this charged oasis, come two refugees, a brother and sister, fleeing the neighboring civil war.
As the Trafficker and Cashier’s war-profiteering collides with the refugees’ psychic trauma and desperate dreams, the specific geography of the petrol station disappears, allowing the space, as well as the actors’ performances, to become global stand-ins for any place tyranny rules and makes humanity expendable.
The playwright signals this global resonance by layering his actors with a mix of accents – African, Latino, Arab, Texan – and featuring, in his all American cast, actors that define America’s diversity and our own citizens’ personal connection to the contemporary global stage.
Although the play, like the world right now, is certainly bleak, Al Bassam understands where hope and change will come from and doesn’t shy away from it. The refugee Girl wraps her every word in fight and spite, summoning her own resistance:
…I’m not lining up to join the ranks of the dispossessed.
I’ve a people that need me, a country on the slaughter rack,
seized in the pains of a terrible becoming…
Out of this bloodshed, out of this suffering
a child is being born;
…I’ve pledged my life to this unborn child
and vowed to teach it all I know and
all I love and all I wish for. That is my alphabet.
For anyone who feels their outrage weakening as the deluge of “Trumpian” disturbances continues with no end in sight, Petrol Station offers the best kind of reprieve. Art, in this case political theater, can be clarifying for the soul in times like these, and Petrol Station does just that.
Petrol Station will be performed in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on March 24 and 25 at 8:00 p.m. with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on March 26. A post-performance discussion will be offered following the March 24 performance.
For more information please visit the Kennedy Center website, in-person at the Kennedy Center box office, or call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
Photos: Jack Llewellyn-Karsk