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
In my mid twenties, from 2003 to 2009, I lived in Kuwait at the height of the U.S. military operations. It was an amazing opportunity, both personally and professionally, and opened my eyes to the world in ways that I had never contemplated. Newly divorced and eager to have an adventure, I took the leap, accepting a contracting job with the U.S. Army. Nevertheless, it was scary to venture off alone into the epicenter of a United States-Middle East conflict. Like so many Americans, I had preconceived ideas about the culture. Some proved to be true, others not so true. In my recently published book Life In My Hands, Healing Myself, Healing Others, I provide more details about my life in Kuwait City working for the military. For now, here are the three biggest life lessons I learned from living in the Middle East:
Growth begins where your comfort zone ends. Leaving a safe place is scary, but don’t underestimate the growth you will experience from jumping into something new. Being in a foreign country, immersing yourself in a culture so different from your own, can’t help but lead to change and growth.
Simple daily interactions – enjoying the cuisine, having conversations with locals, driving through different neighborhoods, and taking in entertainment – can expand your horizons. Appreciating the culture – fashions, customs, language – while falling into the local rhythms of life can provide a priceless education.
Shops open and close at different times, traffic patterns follow the local customs, and, as a result, new surroundings create personal rituals in order to experience and take full advantage of what the city has to offer. I remember rearranging my activities during Ramadan. Fewer shops were open and those that were had less staff. The regular hustle and bustle of the city was reduced. This forced me to stop and enjoy the downtime and live slower. Toward the end of the month, I was invited to take part in a breaking fast feast that reminded me of gathering with my own family at Thanksgiving.
As people were peacefully going through life, they were willing to answer my questions. Many of the ideas and fears that I started out turned out not to represent my experience of living in the Middle East. I would have never have known that had I not pushed through my discomfort and dared to take on this adventure.
Exposure to new things forces us to move outside of our known truths.Growth only happens when we have the courage to stand in the unknown zone for a while and figure out that we are okay, even if we don’t understand the system or the way things happen – yet.
Being non-judgmental leads to a richer life. There are differences in cultures, and that isn’t good or bad, it just is. We aren’t meant to be all the same, but we are meant to be equal. Diversity is everywhere; it’s what makes the world a high definition color instead of black and white. I forced myself to be neutral as much as possible and withhold my interpretation of certain things (that interpretation was my biased framing to begin with). Keeping an open mind allowed me to have a wonderful experience. We’re all different and that’s okay. It’s possible to coexist peacefully, respect local customs, and still be who we are, without trying to force everyone and everything to fit into one cultural framework.
I began to realize that my judgment was often fueled by fear. Once I realized that, it became easier to be less judgmental of the foreign world I was living in. As a result, I was able to make real connections with people who had much different upbringings and life experiences than I had.
Ultimately I discovered that even with all our difference, we are all humans and want the same things. We all experience love, anger, sadness and fear regardless of what culture we are born into. Everyone is seeking these connections and love in their lives. I learned to connect with people on that level and made amazing life long friendships with people from all over the planet.
All we really have are the connections we make with others. Even those that we will never see again, leave their mark. Sometimes their leaving created heartbreak. We survive and learn to move on and appreciate the memories. We carry what we learn from them with us.
The money and many of the material things I collected from my time in the Middle East are long gone. What’s left are my priceless friendships and memories that will be with me forever. The life changing relationships, professional and personal, helped to develop my outlook on life, to learn compassion and understanding, and see that goodness in humanity is alive and well, especially in the Middle East. The people I connected with in all the foreign countries where I’ve lived have been my university; my priceless educational life experience.
Photo of Kuwait City landscape from a speed boat from Bigstock.
Darcy Hotchkiss is the author of Life in My Hands – Healing Myself, Healing Others.