There is a moon orbiting at the center of “Grey Rock,” Amir Nizar Zuabi’s newest play. His characters dream of it and, in turn, the audience dreams of it too. On this moon, there is a Palestinian flag, fluttering in the airless wind. It is this moon that Yousef, the play’s protagonist, a 63-year-old Palestinian man played by Khalifa Natour, is chasing.
“Grey Rock” tells Yousef’s story — and that of his daughter, Leila (Fidaa Zaidan) — as Yousef builds a rocket to the moon in a shed in the West Bank. Zuabi, an acclaimed Palestinian playwright who both wrote and directed the play, does not shy away from the absurdity of this premise; he revels in it. And, mesmerized, we are quickly carried away on Yousef’s mission, as it unfolds into a story of Palestinian struggle and identity.
“Grey Rock” is the inaugural project of the Remote Theater Project, the nonprofit that brought Zuabi and his five-person cast, all Palestinian, to New York to develop the show. The play had its world premiere last year and, in January 2020, embarked on a four-city tour of the U.S., to high praise. On January 30, it touched down in Washington, D.C., holding performances at the Kennedy Center.
It is a strange irony that a play of such brilliance, carrying a titanic message of Palestinian hope, would arrive in Washington at the moment that President Trump released his devastating “peace plan” for the region.
It is a strange irony that a play of such brilliance, carrying a titanic message of Palestinian hope, would arrive in Washington at the moment that President Trump released his devastating “peace plan” for the region. On January 28, Trump signed off on a laundry list of far-right Israeli policies, appearing to greenlight Netanyahu’s concurrent announcement of the annexation of settlements in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. Thousands of Palestinians have taken to the streets in opposition.
“Grey Rock,” of course, is not a direct response to the plan — but in the wake of Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” its message takes on a greater urgency. The play advocates for the sort of hope and solidarity that is revolutionary; as ludicrous as building a makeshift rocket to the moon, and as powerful.
That message, sadly, appears to have fallen on some deaf ears. In a January 29 review, the Washington Post called the play a “comedic olive branch,” — one that is unconcerned with “the endless Middle East conflict.” Last year, the New York Times wrote that for “Grey Rock,” the Israeli occupation was merely an “ancillary concern.”
At its core, “Grey Rock” is a striking allegory for Palestinian struggle and resistance.
Certainly, Yousef’s journey is about many things. It is about family and love; about gravity and the circling of the planets. At its core, though, it is a striking allegory for Palestinian struggle and resistance. “Grey Rock” offers no “olive branch.” It has bigger aspirations.
The play begins as a zany, almost slapstick comedy. Yousef is sneaking around, working secretly on a rocket in his shed. Leila, convinced her father is having an affair, is urged by her uptight, business mogul fiancé to investigate. The two stumble upon the rocket blueprints and gawk at them — then beg Yousef to stop his plans. Yousef refuses, hilariously obstinate.
The seriousness of Yousef’s quest emerges slowly, as his moon dangles above all of Grey Rock’s characters, just out of reach. When Leila, and then the others, warm up to the idea of Yousef’s “first Palestinian space mission” it is because they have come to understand its political weight.
Yousef’s mission is, on one level, a token gesture. Like Palestinian children who throw rocks at tanks, he tells Leila, it will not change anything: “They know it does not,” he says. “But it reminds the world that Gaza is there. It reminds the world what they want to forget.”
Yet his quest is — at the same time — an allegory for Palestinian struggle itself. “The moon was robbed from Earth, and Earth wants it back,” Yousef’s assistant, Fadel, explains to Leila in a telling moment. “Everything on Earth on the molecular level contains this sense of loss, of longing.”
The moon in “Grey Rock” is a symbolic, galactic Palestine, torn away by force from its people and yet ever-present above them.
The moon in “Grey Rock” is a symbolic, galactic Palestine, torn away by force from its people and yet ever-present above them. And almost as if to retrieve it, Yousef builds a rocket. This rocket, aimed not at Israel but at the stratosphere, is a clever image by Zuabi, one that references — but complicates — decades of different Palestinian rocket fire.
Resistance is fraught, and Zuabi does not shy away from that in “Grey Rock.” Throughout the play, he investigates the way that the occupation and the defiance have fragmented Palestinian society. Leila’s fiancé wants nothing to do with the mission and clashes with her father; he sees Yousef’s mission as futile and fears the consequences it could bring to the village. Leila, herself, is torn between her fiancé’s life of security and her father’s glorious, reckless idealism.
What place does that idealism have in Palestinian resistance — in any resistance? That is the question that “Grey Rock” asks, and quietly answers.
By the end of Yousef’s journey, the play has shone a light on the unassailable character of Palestinian hope. It is a rare message to be heard in U.S. theater, where Palestinian voices are few. And right now, it is an important one.