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Sometime between two and three in the morning, New York cabdriver Musa (Ahmad Kamal) leads waitress Sheri (Rachel Felstein) up a staircase. (Yes, the city is unnamed in playwright Yussef El Guindi’s script, but the geographical details, and the way even his Muslim American characters sprinkle their English with Yiddishisms make it unmistakably New York.) It’s not the first time she’s been a passenger in his cab after the late shift, but it’s the first time he’s invited her to his home for a drink. Musa is an Egyptian immigrant who taught himself English by reading a translation of the Quran (since he knows the original) and the hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. On this night, he takes advantage of the absence of his roommate, Abdullah (a charismatic Freddie Lee Bennett), who is on the Hajj. Sheri is loquacious and curious about everything, especially Musa. Despite coming from a family of alcoholics and ne’er do wells, she wants to be perceived as a good girl who does not normally accept invitations for a drink from relative strangers. Musa, despite being a Muslim, likes Scotch. And despite the body dysmorphia that causes Sheri to imagine herself fat, Musa makes her feel beautiful.
The upstairs neighbors argue. The corner shop is still open in order to cater to the night owls and junkies. Musa and Sheri make love. She is his first American woman. The absent roommate wanders into her dreams describing his wonderment at his success brokering deals between his fellow immigrants in multicultural America, and how, in thanks for his prosperity, he makes his pilgrimage to Mecca where he will give praise alongside Muslims of all nations. Mecca becomes the religious counterpoint to New York, a destination of secular pilgrimage.
Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World is the sort of romantic comedy that was once a staple of independent film and, in more recent years, streaming television. There are no glamorous jobs, no luxurious apartments, no expectations of a big break so typical of mainstream Hollywood fare. This being a romantic comedy, though, there are obstacles to overcome, least of which is the lovers’ own baggage. Musa’s shrewd Somali friend, Tayyib (Gerrad Alex Taylor), does not believe the romance can survive the cultural differences and reminds Musa that he’s already engaged to Gamila (Sanam Laila Hashemi) an Egyptian-American nursing student meeting Musa’s family in Cairo to make wedding arrangements. Rest assured, Gamila has her return tickets in hand and will happen upon Musa and Sheri’s love nest.
We’ve seen one version or another of this story many a time, but thankfully, El Guindi is an excellent storyteller who has populated his city with charming, flawed characters who have their own sensual desires, spiritual aspirations, and material needs. If there is something lacking, it is that Musa’s fondness for crime novels is not fully explored.
Director Shirley Serotsky has assembled a terrific cast. As the lovers, Kamal and Felstein have a dynamic rapport that allows one to lose oneself in their flirtations and inevitable and hilarious first fight. Felstein in particular delivers her speech with dancing syncopated rhythms. As Gamila, Hashemi manages to be both a formidable and sympathetic rival.
Serotsky’s direction also unleashes the creativity of set designer Nephelie Andonyadis. Taking inspiration from El Guindi’s stage direction that Musa’s taxi cab is constructed out of suitcases, Andyonadis has taken the suitcase, that totem of both traveller and immigrant that Tayyib sells on Broadway and Abdullah and Gamila lug along on their travels, as a central symbol. It is the baggage that follows us through life. On this stage, the entire skyline is constructed of suitcases, as are the stairs up to and walls of Musa’s apartment. New York is a city where everybody carries baggage. The stage is painted with ripples of water, representing the oceans migrants and pilgrims cross, and longitudinal and latitudinal lines of sepia colored navigational maps on the proscenium remind us that immigration stories are age old.
Though Pilgrims is not the boldest or most daring of Mosaic Theater Company’s offerings this season, it is a particularly entertaining entry in the tradition of the American immigrant story. It envisions the pilgrim as protagonist and not as a foreign threat.
To Feb. 16 at 1333 H St. NE. $20–$65. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.
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