Mona Mansour was last at Mosaic Theater during the summer of 2018.
The playwright was there to premiere her epic work, The Vagrant Trilogy, a piece that would later move to New York’s Public Theater and earn the highly coveted New York Times Critic’s Pick. She’s now back at Mosaic for the third professional production of Unseen, a play she describes as “a bit of a thriller.”
“It starts with a question, which is ‘How did this American photographer, Mia, end up at the site of a massacre?'” she says. “With her Turkish ex-girlfriend, Derya, the pair piece it together. In her quest to find out and through flashbacks to different assignments in her past, it keeps looping back to the present time. It moves toward what is hopefully an emotionally satisfying ending. Everything isn’t tied up, but it questions the limits of empathy and what happens when people lose it.”
Unseen first premiered at Chicago’s Gift Theater in 2017 and last year, played the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Yet the world has been drastically altered since the Chicago production debuted six years ago.
“The play sort of softened,” Mansour says. “We’ve been through heartbreak and loss. Now, we’re hearing a lot more about mental health because, as a friend told me, ‘People used up their resources over the last two or three years.’ People hear things differently because [collectively] we have changed. There may be parts of the play that have remained the same, but the relationship to the material may not be the same as it was before the pandemic began.”
Unseen deals chiefly with trauma, a theme that lingered with Mansour after she listened to the audiobook of the bestseller, The Body Keeps the Score during lockdown.
“You may think that because you’ve been in a traumatic incident that you can compartmentalize in order to survive, but the body remembers. When places are in forever wars, what are we expecting? Everyone who grows up in Afghanistan has been through how many wars? Are we thinking about that?” It changed the way she saw not only her own life, but the life of the characters in her play. So she did rewrites.
Mansour is excited for Mosaic to stage the production in the nation’s capital, particularly due to the occupation of the play’s protagonist, Mia. “A lot of those people — or people who are adjacent to those people — are in D.C. By now, I’ve had other photojournalists watch this play and they felt like it was resonant. To me, that’s the test.”
Asked about the role photojournalism plays in reporting, Mansour offers a complicated response. “I think if you’re taking pictures of a little boy in Syria whose body washes on the shore, then maybe it’s a little exploitative, but also a little helpful in making people aware about what’s really happening. As a society, people self-exploit themselves. They take pictures of themselves pre- or post-surgery or take a video of kicking their exes out and throwing their clothes out of the window.”
Mansour acknowledges the professionals who helped her with research for Unseen. “I spoke to a photojournalist named Nichole Sobecki for information and inspiration,” she says, clarifying that Mia is not based on her.
“I had the privilege of meeting and talking with U.S.-based photojournalist Dave Gilkey. He was on assignment in Afghanistan and a mutual friend connected us. When he returned to the safety of home, I asked him what it was like for him and his family. He told me that his mother could stop going to therapy for a little while — his mom was in therapy because of what he does! The stress on families of these folks is unbelievable. This play also asks the question, ‘Why the hell are we in these endless wars?'”
A few years after she had spoken with Gilkey, she learned that he had gone back to Afghanistan and was killed in an ambush.
“When we look around right now at the theater landscape, so many theater companies are struggling,” she says, switching topics. “Everywhere you look, there has been a lot of scaling down.
“The fact that Mosaic is around is not something I take lightly. That they are diverse with their programming is admirable. They are ahead of the curve in terms of what diversity really looks like. I think that Reginald L. Douglas is a really exciting leader. He knows the process of new play development and he’s willing to take risks.”
Much of Mansour’s work is centered around the Middle East. As the lesbian daughter of a Lebanese immigrant father and a mother who was Norwegian born and raised in Seattle, she acknowledges her own complexity and those of the characters she brings to life.
“I hope that Unseen will attract secular Muslims or gay Muslims because this play is representative of them,” she says. “It gives Middle Eastern people a more rounded portrayal. People are not easy in my plays.”
Unseen runs through April 23 at the Mosaic Theater, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets are $50 to $64. Visit www.mosaictheater.org or call 202-399-7993, ext. 501.
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