There's a new show at The Gift Theatre that everyone should see called Unseen. The play follows a photographer in Istanbul who deals with trauma thanks to drugs and her girlfriend, with powerful performances from Brittany Burch and Ashley Agbay in the production.
The playwright, Mona Mansour, has a broad background from which to draw. She composed The Vagrant trilogy that eventually went to the Public Theater. Her work titled The Way West premiered last year at the Labyrinth Theater in New York with a prior run at Steppenwolf. Her short play Dressing was commissioned by the New Black Festival along with many others in various parts of the country.
Mansour called from New York after Unseen's big debut at The Gift Theatre.
Windy City Times: Hi, Mona. Did you study playwriting originally?
Mona Mansour: I studied acting in college. I wound up in Texas doing a BFA at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It was a strange but good experience. Texas was a whole new world. I did some more acting but leaned more into writing. What jumpstarted it was that I more interested in comedy.
I studied with the Groundlings in LA and with the Sunday Company there. I did a lot of fast writing on my feet. That is what got me started.
I wrote a solo play, then a two woman play. I decided I didn't want to act anymore and that was huge relief. I could focus on playwriting for other people.
WCT: Have you written many shows with LGBT themes?
MM: No. I define myself as a gay woman. Everyone has their own story but for me it was late blooming in my 20s and figuring it out. I am also half Arab and Lebanese. For some reason, that is the identity that has informed more of my writing.
An early play I had written was called Girl Scouts of America. That was a coming-of-age story about girls liking each other.
I don't feel I deliberately did it that way, but just other stuff was more interesting to me. This play is really combining the two parts of me, being Middle Eastern and a gay woman.
WCT: What was the story based on?
MM: I had been working on a story about a Russian journalist for a few years. I was struck with the idea of how does that person not have nightmares every night. I was commissioned to write this play but they said I could write what I wanted to. I met with a mom at a mosque, then a woman who ran an Islamic school for girls. I realized I should keep doing what I do, open people up to these different narratives about the Middle Eastern community.
It came together to tell the story of this experience. It is not a picture perfect relationship but I do think they love each other.
WCT: I'm sure it resonates for people with addiction problems.
MM: Being an addict or alcoholic is not uncommon and partly tied to work. They are medicating themselves. The mother in the show may have gone to Al-Anon meetings.
When I was working on the play years ago there were so many images that came across Twitter of really horrific things. I didn't know how anyone got through it without self medicating. How do we do this? I think the play asks that question without answering it, except for the end where there is a little bit of light. I think that is profound to just be with another human.
The play goes into deep things like seeing and not seeing. I don't have some perfect answer. For Mia, the main character, her answer is to keep moving. She cuts the edge with whatever substance and keeps moving.
WCT: What do you think she will do after the play ends?
MM: I think she will look up some AA meetings and go. She will work on sitting still and not going crazy. Whether you are an addict or not, it is a very human issue, especially now.
WCT: Is the drug mentioned in the show a real drug?
MM: It is a real drug. I came across this documentary about burundanga. I wanted something that was not just a drink, but something that would mess her up. I believe the doc is in Colombia. It is a very volatile substance. Someone may take it and take money out of an ATM, for example, with no recollection.
It brings up things like memory or taking away trauma with a drug and the ethics of doing that.
I have not heard of it being the United States but it could have been.
WCT: How do you feel this premiere could be done differently?
MM: There are always rewrites in your head when you are a playwright. I wasn't able to be in Chicago for much of the rehearsal process. I was able to receive them doing the work. Normally I am entrenched and in every moment. In some ways this was easier with not as much stress.
One of the things I said to director, Maureen Payne-Hahner, is I didn't want faux Middle Eastlike a bad set designer's idea would be.
It felt very real. The way they used the panels and images was perfect.
WCT: It was very intimate in the space. What do you think of actress Brittany Burch?
MM: At the beginning of the play, she is embodying a drug hangover and PTSD. That is not easy. To be honest I can't do it. I was an actor and couldn't do that part. She does it really beautifully.
She almost has to have embedded in her psyche those moments where the trauma comes out.
WCT: Why did you use hopping back and forth through time in Unseen?
MM: One of the things I wanted was the scene between the two women. That felt important because you don't see Mia at her best in the play. I wanted to show them when they first started together. I wanted to create a sexy pair of women. Derya is a hot woman and loves her, but is sick of her shit.
Derya comes from this part of society but if Mia would get it together then Derya would ask her to marry her. Mia is the problem and comes from the United States, which is the opposite of what people would think normally.
WCT: What are you working on next?
MM: I have a few commissions from different theaters. I have a trilogy of plays about a Palestinian scholar.
In my personal life, my girlfriend wants to go to Morocco and Spain so we are trying to figure that out.
I'm trying to do that balance of life and work!
See Unseen at The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., now through April 9; visit TheGiftTheatre.org .