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Former Northwestern professor premiers staged reading of Syrian war drama

Rachel Holtzman, Reporter

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After reading a New Yorker article about the conditions in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, former Communication Prof. Mia McCullough knew she wanted to write a story that captured their personal experiences.

Her play, “Wisdom From Everything,” premiered in its first staged reading at the Local Lab festival in Boulder last month. It follows 19-year-old Syrian refugee Farsana, who marries an older Jordanian doctor to leave the refugee camp and finds herself caught between his family drama and her own uncertain status.

“Over the past year with our circus of an election cycle, I feel like the war became background noise, and I’m very much not okay with that,” McCullough said. “This is my way of trying to push it to the foreground.”

McCullough originally wrote the play on commission for the Goodman Theatre before she decided to team up with Rachel Fowler, an old classmate and theater producer.

McCullough said she knew that as a white artist, she’d have to conduct extensive research and recruit a team that could speak to the experiences of Arab and Muslim individuals.

She conducted extensive interviews with professors and exchange students at Northwestern, talked to a refugee in a Jordanian camp over Twitter and called a United Nations manager at the camp to confirm the religion of the refugees there.

“One of the things I really appreciate about Mia is her dedication to the work and to make sure it’s truthful,” Fowler said.

To further ensure cultural accuracy, she teamed up with Iranian-American director Pirronne Yousefzadeh for the reading at Local Theater Company. Yousefzadeh, lead actress Mehry Eslaminia and two other writer-actors of color worked with McCullough to figure out what sounded right and what made the most cultural sense.

Yousefzadeh and Eslaminia are both Iranian-American, and the cast was made up entirely of Middle Eastern-American or South Asian-American actors, McCullough said.

“To be in a room where there’s a shared experience and a shared understanding of what it’s like to be a person of color in America, it fills my heart,” Yousefzadeh said. “It’s partly what contributed to such a rich experience.”

Yousefzadeh said she admires McCullough’s attention to detail and passion for the project.

Fowler said though McCullough has experienced some pushback, she hopes “Wisdom From Everything” will be fully staged sometime in the near future, allowing it to reach out to people who, politically, are opposed to the entry of Muslim refugees into the United States.

“I hope the story resonates … in terms of the humanity of these refugees, the horrors they’ve seen and the choices they’ve had to make,” Fowler said. “That might inspire some empathy and sympathy and open our hearts a little bit.”

The reception at Local Lab was positive, Fowler and Yousefzadeh said, and it is work that both of them want to see fully staged in the future. Yousefzadeh said she hopes the play is put on as much as possible because it touches on important issues.

“I hope this is done in a way that honors the characters in the community we’re representing, in terms of casting as well as choices within the show,” Yousefzadeh said. “I know that in Mia’s hands it certainly will be.”

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