November 2, 2019

"Power Strip" Indicts War's Effect on Women

War stories tend to be tales about men told by men. But as the Greeks knew (check out Antigone or The Trojan Women) women have always suffered the ravages of war. 

In recent years, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined, Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed and Winter Miller’s No One is Forgotten have refocused attention on the plight of women besieged by contemporary warfare. Now joining their ranks is Power Strip, an affecting new play by Sylvia Khoury that is running at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater through Nov. 17.

Power Strip’s setting is a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece. Its central character is a 20-year-old Syrian woman named Yasmin who has fled there from the civil wars in her homeland.

Hard times have toughened Yasmin and minutes after the play begins, the former college student is wielding a knife and successfully defending the turf she has secured near the jerry-rigged series of extension cords that give the show its title.

That power strip allows her to have a space heater that keeps her warm at night and to charge the cell phone she uses to keep in touch with the brother she hopes to join in Germany. Both give her a feeling of autonomy and control in a place where people have little of either.

Her would-be assailant is Khaled, a callow but cute newcomer to the camp who after (or maybe because of) being bested by Yasmin quickly becomes smitten with her. In a less ambitious play, the consummation of their courtship would be the sole storyline. 

But while Khoury allows that romance to blossom, she’s more interested in the daily indignities inflicted on female war refugees—be it the endless queueing for inadequate food, the shame of being unable to keep clean or the constant fear of being raped.

Khoury, who is of Lebanese descent and, impressively, in her fourth year at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital here in New York (click here to read more about her) began writing her play long before Donald Trump’s abandonment of the Syrian Kurds made it so distressingly timely. 

She eschews overt politics and instead leans into the specifics of this one Muslim woman’s struggle to navigate the emotional strip between the modern world and the traditional one that continues to circumscribe her life—and to determine what happens with the anatomical strip between her legs that men have always felt entitled to regulate. 

The self-reliance Yasmin manages to scratch out for herself makes her powerful but also tragic. All of this is underscored in director Tyne Rafaeli’s unsentimental production. And the actors, all of whom seem to be of Middle Eastern descent, bring a refreshing authenticity to the piece. Dina Shihabi is particularly heartbreaking as Yasmin. The creative team steps up too, with a special shout-out due to Matt Hubb’s appropriately unsettling soundscape.

However, the show is not without flaws. Although there are flashbacks to Yasmin's pre-camp life, I wish Khoury had fleshed out even more of Yasmin's backstory and that she had made Khaled less of a pixie dream boy. Another character who shows up toward the end of the 90-minute play also seems too convenient.

But I have no quarrels with Khoury’s message that women will always be collateral damage in wars unless they take their fate into their own hands.

No comments: