A question of beliefs

JoggingA play about a jogger in Beirut explores what it means to be a Muslim woman and the mythic resonance of Medea. The one-woman show has been adapted for a cast of eight HRDC performers. 

By Truelian Lee '21

Melissa Nussbaum saw the play Jogging, a one-woman play by Hanane Hajj Ali, for the first time in Beirut, Lebanon. The play overlays the myth of Medea, a tale in which a woman kills her children to avenge her husband, onto modern-day Lebanon.

“I was very impressed with the text, which was in Arabic, but there were subtitles in English. I was impressed with the text itself, as well as the work of the playwright-actor, Ms. Hajj Ali,” Nussbaum said. “Immediately, I knew I wanted to find a way to bring it to the States.”

She did find a way. As the theatrical director for the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club Visiting Director Program, Nussbaum direct an adapted the play for eight actors, and the show runs through November 4 on the main stage of the Loeb Drama Center.

“I’m really interested in this play as a story about women about motherhood and the horrible conditions that women find themselves in, and the horrible choices they may or may not make because of those horrific conditions,” Nussbaum said.

Hanane Hajj Ali PHOTO: Nora Awsabe
Hajj Ali, who lives in Beirut but will attend the Harvard production, drew inspiration from her personal experiences and from stories of other women in Lebanon. “I was inspired from time to time, when I noticed something or when I thought about something or read something, so sometimes I was inspired to write two lines or a small scene,” she said of writing the play. She also is interest in how the play will translate to a larger cast. 

“I was very happy and I was very interested and curious to see how this one-women show would be adapted,” Hajj Ali said. “I hope that in the States, this play will raise new questions.”

In the adaptation, Nussbaum expanded the plot. She also added a chorus, as well as a character based on U.S. history — Margaret Gardner, a runaway slave who killed her daughter to prevent her from being sold back into slavery.

“I spoke with Ms. Hajj Ali at the beginning of the process and found out what were the really important points for her, but then she gave me full carte blanche and trust to create what I wanted to create, and from one artist to another, there’s a lot of respect,” Nussbaum said. “Part of the importance of this play to me is giving importance to a Muslim playwright speaking about her own experience. I think it’s really important, especially in these times, with so much Islamophobia, that it is important to hear these stories directly from the woman who lived through them."

Cast of Jogging
Members of the cast with Melissa Nussbaum Freeman (far left)
Student producer Madison Deming '18 has been working closely with Nussbaum to make sure the adaptation and the visit from Hajj Ali go smoothly.

“Usually producing on the main stage is a role that’s split between two or three people, and I ended up having to do it by myself, which has been really difficult," said Deming. "At the same time, I feel like I'm taking such a large part in something that I feel is incredibly important, and as I’m doing all of my producing duties, I’m watching from the sidelines of this incredible play that is being built from the ground up."

In the end, the experiences have been very rewarding for Deming.

“The creativity that is flowing from each of these actors and team members and the amount of connection and love between all these people — you can just feel how connected they have become through the process of telling these stories, and it makes the hours and hours spent in tech worth it,” said Deming

Nussbaum said that she hopes audience members will find the play thought-provoking.

“I hope they have a different experience of Lebanese and Muslim women’s’ culture," she said. "I hope it raises questions and makes people question their beliefs. Maybe they’ll change. I also hope that they’ll have a really wonderful theatrical experience. This is a play that is not a traditional play in that it doesn’t have a traditional arc to it, but I think people will come in feeling one way and leave feeling a different way, and that to me is what theater is.”