Raghad Makhlouf
Raghad Makhlouf Credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

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Raghad Makhlouf is having a big night. 

Thirteen years into her stage and television career, she has performed for audiences exponentially larger than the circle of just 34 people—a capacity crowd—who surrounded her and her three co-stars for Sunday night’s opening of In This Hope: A Pericles Project, the latest theatrical experiment from local playmaking collaborative The Welders. But despite the cozy house, this riff on one of Shakespeare’s deep cuts is still a major line-item on Makhlouf’s resume: With the exception of two lines in a Young Playwrights’ Theater production in May, In This Hope marks her debut as an English-language actor. (It’s not her debut as a Shakespearean, though: She played Juliet in her third year of college, in Arabic.) 

Equally significant, it’s her first major gig since she arrived in the United States 16 months ago.

Makhlouf, 36, is a Syrian asylum-seeker who was compelled to flee with her husband from neighboring Lebanon in 2017, after immigration authorities began cracking down on Syrians living within its borders—part of a worsening refugee crisis created by Syria’s ongoing civil war. (Makhlouf takes issue with the term “civil war,” saying it does not reflect the truth of the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of deadly force against unarmed opposition.) Now, in an industrial kitchen in the basement of a church on 16th Street NW—the kitchen abuts the black box space that has been Spooky Action Theater’s regular venue for years—she dabs her eyes as well-wishers line up to congratulate her following a champagne toast by playwright/dramaturg Hannah Hessel Ratner. Makhlouf’s husband, Manaf Azzam, beams with pride as she introduces him around.

“I might end up spending the rest of my life in this country,” Makhlouf says. “So I had to do this first step. I have to do it, I have to force myself. This might be my new language.” Like many students in her country, she was taught rudimentary English in school, “but the curriculum wasn’t good.” She’s expanded her formal training with lots of exposure to English-language movies, television, and music, she says, but getting by is a far cry from performing for a paying, if sympathetic, crowd. 

Makhlouf does not know when or if she will return to her homeland. Were she to leave the U.S. now, she likely would not be permitted to re-enter the country. Nor does she know when U.S. immigration authorities will summon her for an interview to make a ruling on her asylum request. A Syrian friend of hers has been waiting for four years. So even though Pericles wasn’t written in the language in which she’s accustomed to thinking and performing—not that many 21st century English speakers would necessarily regard the Elizabethan verse that’s still partially preserved in Ratner’s script as their mother tongue, either—she finds the play’s themes of exile, separation, and new beginnings in unfamiliar lands easy to lock into. 

The happy symmetry of performer and material goes beyond Makhlouf. 

Ratner, the longtime audience enrichment manager for Shakespeare Theatre Company, wasn’t interested in simply updating Pericles. Rather, she wanted a platform to provoke conversations about memory and identity. She says she chose Pericles because it’s “Shakespeare’s most meta play,” introducing the 14th-century poet John Gower as its narrator. In no other play does Shakespeare acknowledge his inspirations so openly, she says. 

Ratner liked the notion of Pericles as the anchor for an exploratory theater piece about how artists borrow from artists and how stories transmit identity. When she and New York-based director Anna Brenner—whom she met when the two were in Columbia University’s MFA Theatre Program together seven years ago—began auditions, they instructed candidates not merely to study their sides, but to arrive ready to teach them something. 

Each of the four cast members—Makhlouf, Lida Maria Benson, Rocelyn Frisco, and Lori Pitts—have interludes in which they discuss their own family histories in contemporary prose speech before pivoting back to their roles in Pericles. They also invite members of the audience to volunteer little fragments of autobiography, sometimes just with their neighbor but occasionally with the entire crowd. (The audience is also encouraged to rise from their seats and dance during a wedding scene. You are alerted.)

Makhlouf graduated from Syria’s only formal acting academy, Damascus’ Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, in 2004. She spent the next six years as a teaching assistant in the acting department there while booking regular stage and television roles. She came to Washington as a part of a two-week international program at the Kennedy Center in 2010, where she befriended Colin Hovde, who would soon be named artistic director of Theater Alliance. They kept in touch after she returned to Syria and it was Hovde who introduced Makhlouf to Ratner, among many other theater practitioners, after she arrived the U.S. last summer.

Makhlouf moved to Lebanon after marrying in 2013. Her participation in the pro-democracy marches of the prior two years, along with comments she’d published in support of the peaceful revolution on Facebook, had been met with threats on her life, making her increasingly reluctant to return to Syria. In 2015, she appeared in Faces and Places, a TV series dramatizing the events leading up to the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in Syria of early 2011. Of course, the Assad government does not allow itself to be portrayed in an unfavorable light on TV. Although made by Syrian artists, Faces and Places was filmed in Turkey, and the show has not been seen in Syria via legal channels.

When one of Makhlouf ’s castmates from the show returned to Syria while Faces and Places was still in production, she was arrested and interrogated about the cast and crew of the show, and denied permission to cross the border back into Turkey to finish filming her role in the series. Makhlouf was among the artists the authorities asked about by name.

The tension came to a head last summer when Lebanese officials seized her husband’s passport and threatened to deport him to his native Syria, though he had long made Lebanon his home. After about a month of wrangling, they agreed to return it to him on the condition that he leave the country immediately. Makhlouf and Azzam still had U.S. visas because they had attended her younger brother’s University of Chicago graduation in the summer of 2016. He’d since moved to Washington, which—along with the local theater connections Makhlouf had made during her 2010 visit—was why they chose to come here.

Makhlouf says there’s no way of knowing who’s informing on who to the Syrian authorities—or, as the refugee crisis has worsened, to the Lebanese authorities—and it’s often difficult to know exactly what gets you branded as a dissident. She blames Assad and his government for the climate of fear and violence that has swallowed her country Her mother, a pro-democracy activist, had the good luck to be out of the country in late 2014 when Syrian authorities broke into her parents’ home and questioned her father, a civil engineer, about his spouse and his daughter. He warned his wife against returning to Syria, and he didn’t see her for more than a year. Her parents have now reunited and been granted asylum in Switzerland.

“Our whole family now is on the blacklist,” Makhlouf says.

With Hovde’s encouragement—Makhlouf refers to him as her mentor, even though they’re contemporaries—she has applied and been accepted into The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Academy for Classical Acting in conjunction with The George Washington University. She’s had to defer her admission until she figures out a way to pay the tuition. She and Azzam, a photographer and graphic designer, are earning enough money to cover the rent on their Alexandria apartment, but there isn’t a lot extra to go around.

But she’s optimistic. And after an involuntary layoff that made all the pressures of adapting to a new life in a new place seem worse, she’s back to doing the only job she’s ever known. “Changing my career is not an option,” she says. 

In This Hope: A Pericles Project runs to Dec. 2 at Spooky Action Theatre, 1810 16th St. NW. $18–$36. thewelders.org.