“The shit we deal with in Baghdad, it doesn’t exist in America,” declares Sahir early in Martin Yousif Zebari’s Layalina, now in a world premiere at the Goodman under Sivan Battat’s direction. The newly minted Assyrian bridegroom is both right and wrong. The devastation of “shock and awe” bombing by American forces (followed by a yearslong occupation) about to be unleashed in March 2003 on Sahir’s homeland isn’t something Americans habitually experience. But in the granular and familial sense of “we,” the complexities of life for the Ibrahim family (the one Sahir just married into) continue on, even in Skokie in 2020.

Through 4/2: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Tue 3/21 7:30 PM, Sun 3/26 7:30 PM, and Wed 3/30 2 PM; audio description Sun 3/26 2 PM, ASL interpretation Sat 4/1 2 PM, Spanish subtitles Sat 4/1 8 PM, open captions Sun 4/2 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $15-$50

In act one, Sahir (Waseem Alzer) has just wed the Ibrahims’ oldest daughter, Layal (Becca Khalil). The young couple is planning a move to Skokie to be with Sahir’s parents and his younger brother, Amin. But with the war breaking out, Layal’s father, Yasir (Mattico David), wants them to take Layal’s much younger siblings to the U.S. with them, since Yasir and his wife, Karima (Atra Asdou), have been denied visas to the U.S. Meantime, Sahir and Mazin (Ali Louis Bourzgui)—Layal’s other brother who is facing conscription into the Iraqi army if he can’t get out to Australia with his own fiancee—are taking to the streets in protests every night. 

Tragedy ends the act, but life continues. By act two, an older Layal (Asdou) is eking out a living in Skokie as a seamstress and designer, taking care of younger siblings Marwa (Khalil) and Yousif (Bourzgui). Marwa is nonbinary and Yousif is gay, as is Amin (Alzer), who feels very much like an honorary member of the Ibrahim clan. The arrival of Mazin (David) from Australia, where he and his family relocated after the war, provides a reminder that the shit they have to deal with is both the same and different than that facing many families in America. (The double casting between the younger and older generations in the two acts reinforces the sense of history that may not repeat, but certainly rhymes.)

Zebari’s play can perhaps feel like two different stories woven together, but I’d argue that’s the point: seemingly mundane family disagreements exist amid the turmoil of war and occupation, while the legacy of that history lingers in the background for families who have endured it, even as they’re just making dinner or smoking pot. Moreover, as Marwa’s increasing activism with Black Lives Matter protests shows, there are communities in the U.S. who face their own form of occupation and oppression.

But what’s most vital and engaging in Zebari’s play is how they place all these elements into a world where love comes first and the characters, though inevitably marked by their traumas, aren’t defined by them. There are so many interludes where the simple acts of sewing, cooking, and just hanging out on the couch giving each other grief (this last being mostly the domain of the younger generation) reveal the fortitude and faith in each other that the characters hold.

And holding it together in Battat’s production is Asdou’s Layal. Forced into mothering her younger siblings when she was barely more than a girl herself, Layal could be a simmering stew of resentment (indeed, I suspect that that’s how a lot of plays with born-in-America protagonists would frame it). But though she is sometimes bowed by the burdens placed on her, Layal is also shaped by them to some extent. Her ability to provide a better world for Marwa and Yousif (and to some extent Amin) is a source of pride and sustenance.

There are several scenes where characters listen in on each other’s conversations from the stairs above in casaboyce’s flexible but cunningly dressed set. (It moves from the elegant grandeur of the Ibrahims’ Baghdad home to the lived-in casualness of the Skokie house with ease.) The device can feel a bit repetitive at times, but by the end, I realized that it’s also a way of showing how the family bears witness silently to each other’s struggles and comes together to support each other’s dreams. Layalina‘s insistence on the persistence of joy is wholly radical. Maybe that’s one way to deal with the shit, no matter where it exists.

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