The staged reading of Goats at the 2018 PEN World Voices Festival occurred on April 17 at the Segal Theatre at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City and featured playwright Liwaa Yazji, director Zishan Urgulu, and moderator Saphe Shamoun.
One aspect of the PEN World Voices Festival that is sometimes overlooked in favor of more prose-centric offerings is the International Play Festival, sponsored by the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, a division of the CUNY Graduate Center, which presented a staged reading of Goats, written by Liwaa Yazji and translated by Katharine Halls. The Syrian playwright tackles the Syrian conflict through the story of a small village that becomes a microcosm of the many issues at play in this multifaceted war. When local leader Abu al-Tayyib decides that each mourning family will receive a mountain goat, he butts heads with schoolteacher Abu Firas, who has lost his son. The struggle between the two grieving and confused fathers forms the core of the story. Abu al-Tayyib manipulates the truth as the media descends on the town and its new goats, while Abu Firas seeks the truth until the end and pays a high price for it.
Unfortunately, Yazji was not allowed to enter the US and so could not attend the event in person. After making the announcement about this turn of events, which he called a “disgrace,” Frank Hentschker, the executive director and director of programs at the Segal Center, reiterated the need for these diverse voices to have a platform to be heard, echoing the theme of this year’s festival: “Resist and Reimagine.”
Despite the fact that this was not a full production—the script had to be cut from its original three-hour running time to just ninety minutes for this event—the play was captivating, and it was standing room only in the small, brightly-lit Segal Theater. Rich sound design and audience participation fostered a heightened theatrical experience. As soon as the black-clad actors began to speak, a cacophony of other noises emerged—shouting, missiles, gunfire. When Abu al-Tayyib addressed the villagers and requested they stand for a moment of silence for the husbands, brothers, and fathers lost in the conflict, we, the audience, were told to rise to our feet. We became the villagers.
Sound and silence play a large role in the play; gunfire constantly punctuates villagers’ words, one mother initially refuses to speak at all, and by the end of the show, the bleats of goats become a constant presence. Ultimately, another silence—the silence of death—arrives, unwanted but inevitable.
Image: Liyaa Yazji appears via Skype in conversation with Saphe Shamoun and Zishan Ugurlu. Photo by Alessandra Bautze.
As we moved into the Q&A portion of the event, the playwright was not to be silenced, and, despite being denied the opportunity to join the conversation in person, she nevertheless joined via Skype from Berlin, where she currently resides. Saphe Shamoun of NYU then moderated a discussion between Yazji and the play’s director, Zishan Ugurlu. The play, Yazji explained, came out of her own commitment “not to rely on what is given to you by the media” and represents her “journey to understand how people normalize . . . the absurdity of war . . . what is ethical . . . what is not ethical, what is acceptable, what is not acceptable.” She went on to ask, “Who am I to claim that I know the truth . . . or that I have the answers?” Indeed the play leaves us with no easy answers. Instead, Yazji hopes that foreign audiences will find “common ground” with the people of Syria.
Ugurlu brought up the idea that we are all complicit in injustice if we do not speak up, stating, “200,000 people died in the Syrian War . . . the war going on the last seven years, I am part of it, I am actually the reason of it because I am silent about it.” She described the process by which she created the abridged version of the play, cutting it from 135 pages to forty-five. She did not cut out any of the play’s eighteen scenes, but only shortened each of them, reading the play three times in order to understand “the core of the arguments” and the emotional heart of the story and the character’s struggles.
What remains is a powerfully succinct examination of lives touched by war. Goats places the audience in the middle of the conflict in Syria—not only the battles fought on the frontlines but also the more domestic, intimate ones that likewise carry a human cost.