Writer and performer Leila Buck ’99 shared the latest exploration of her play, “HKEELEE (Talk to Me),” a work-in-progress, at New York City’s Culture Project on Monday, July 29 as part of the Women Center Stage Festival. The solo, personalized play resonated with the audience members who stayed for an in-depth discussion after the show.
In the piece, Buck ties together moments that are specific to her life in the context of universal themes. She addresses her Lebanese grandmother’s memory loss; French and Arabic; music and dance as sometimes competing, sometimes complimentary markers of her Lebanese heritage and its complex history; the rising fear of and debate around the role of immigrants in America, particularly those of Arab or Muslim origin; and much more as she unpacks a suitcase full of meaningful objects, recreating the process of moving her grandmother into an assisted living facility.
Describing her work, Buck said, “At its core, it’s a project about how we hold onto people and places we love—what we carry with us, what we leave behind, and how those choices come to shape who we are as individuals, families, communities and nations.”
During the event, Buck had the chance to experiment with audience participation through an informal sharing workshop. In the character of her grandmother, she offered the audience coffee as though they were visitors to her home, told a young man’s fortune by reading his cup, asked the meaning of words, directed each member to read one line of a poem written by Khalil Gibran to the children of Arab immigrants, and even received shouted answers to unasked questions. After the performance, Buck shared that it had not been scripted, but instead was an experiment with the form of traditional storytelling, passed down orally in families and communities, blended with theatrical storytelling and direct address.
Buck has written another full-length play, “In the Crossing,” that tells the story of her journey with her husband, Adam Abel ’98, to Lebanon and Syria in July 2006, before, during, and after the Israeli-Hezbollah war that summer. Through years of performances at conferences, universities and cultural institutions including the Public Theater, New York Theatre Workshop, the Brooklyn Museum and Culture Project’s 2011 Women Center Stage Festival, Buck discovered that the heart of the piece was the conflict it sparked among viewers. So she wrote that into the play, adding characters to represent different views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based on the personal lens of her and Abel’s blended family of Arab and Jewish Americans. In addition, Abel spent the past two years filming a documentary about Palestinian youth who skate, do parkour, and perform beatbox and hip-hop—now in post-production.
As a professional teaching artist who has conducted workshops and residencies around the world, Buck creates theatrical work that sparks dialogue around current political and social issues. Using a base of personal stories from her international background and life experience, she addresses the audience directly, often inviting their participation both during and after the performance, and adapting her work to reflect the range of perspectives that she encounters.
Following this workshop, Buck says her goal with “HKEELEE” is to find institutions and communities interested in engaging with its themes. She will be building on the work with several cultural partners in 2014 and looks forward to the chance to develop it in dialogue with a range of communities. For more information see www.leilabuck.com.