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With a name like Unseen, it’s not surprising that Mona Mansour’s latest play questions the difference between looking and seeing. Fittingly, Unseen’s protagonist, Mia, played by Katie Kleiger, is a White 20-something American woman working as a conflict photographer in Syria. Her job, as she says at one point, is to capture images that are just enticing enough to get people who don’t want to look—at the atrocities and violence happening in the country—to, well, look. But the play asks, sometimes too bluntly: What is the point of looking?
Set in Istanbul in 2015, largely within a warm apartment, Unseen is told through flashes between present time and Mia’s past decade taking photos of the dead and dying in the Middle East. It opens with a flashback that eventually comes full circle. Mia is snapping photos of a teacher who is picking up the remnants of a classroom that was recently bombed. There’s talk of death and time and bravery. The teacher, contempt clear in her voice, directs Mia to point her lens elsewhere to focus on the devastation.
And then we’re in the aforementioned apartment—beautifully designed by Emily Lotz; Mia wakes up alone and confused and calls out for Derya, her current off-again girlfriend played with deep, unforced nuance by Mosaic Theater Company’s Dina Soltan. A mystery unfolds: How is Mia in Istanbul? What happened on her last assignment in Syria, where she was found lying unconscious among a massacre? Where is her camera? Is she OK? And what, exactly, does “OK” even mean?
Mia and Derya’s relationship raises another question of what is seen and what isn’t. Although not religious, Derya is Turkish and not exactly out to her family, but nor is she “closeted” in the way we often think of it in Western culture. Those who need to know do; others respect her privacy. And she is certainly the only one bringing any kind of healthy boundaries and reasonable expectations to the table. Mia, on the other hand, is out. And soon, her mother, Jane (Emily Townley), travels from the San Francisco suburbs (read: middle or upper class) to Istanbul to help take care of her daughter. Jane immediately approves of Derya. (“She’s cute!” she tells her daughter, to which Mia replies, “I know.”) Accepting of her daughter’s queerness aside, Jane feels intentionally written as a parody of a middle-class White woman who brightly recites so many Middle Eastern and Arab stereotypes that it surpasses funny and lands in cringe.
Mansour is a gay Lebanese American playwright and TV writer. What Unseen gets almost perfect is the banter and back-and-forth between ex-ish girlfriends (so much so that myself and my friend, two queer women, were literally laughing out loud at some scenes). And Derya’s robust portrayal of a multidimensional Middle Eastern woman feels fresh and easy. What’s less seamless is Mia as the play’s center. Although played in earnest by Kleiger, who exudes physical comfort on stage, Mia’s White Guilt-Meets-White Savior complex can come off as a bit tiresome, while some of her plotlines feel heavy handed and dialogue-driven—like a quickly decided means to an end.
Mia, we learn quickly, has run from her relationship with Derya, similar to how she ran away from her comfortable art school life in the Bay Area. Despite being told by an editor to “not look” while photographing the terrible results of humanity’s worst impulses, she is torn between distancing herself from the people she documents and believing her work can change the world, or perhaps just Americans, for the better.
But there’s a sense of othering that Mia can’t shake from her work, and maybe the play can’t either. Her photos capture death, devastation, and pain—but not hers. What does it mean to capture someone else’s trauma? And what does it mean to look at it? “Do you even see us?” one grieving mother asks her.
Indeed Mansour was contemplating what it means to look and see when writing this play, and it’s something many of us, at least tangentially, ought to think about regularly. Just this week, City Paper reported on recently released body camera footage from local police that shows a 17-year-old who was shot in the back five times by a police officer. Do we look or turn away? Does seeing 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s body after he was shot and killed by a Cleveland law enforcement officer encourage action and change? Or does it make us numb? Did the image of the drowned 2-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi do anything to lessen the refugee crisis or change how people think about immigrants, war, senseless death, and murder—specifically wrongs done to Black and Brown bodies? Or has it all contributed to the oversaturation of images that have worked to desensitize us? I don’t know if looking is the answer, especially if we’re not seeing the reality behind the images. But seeing, Mansour argues, takes a lot more work.
Mosaic Theater Company’s Unseen, written by Mona Mansour and directed by Johanna Gruenhut, plays at Atlas Performing Arts Center through April 23. mosaictheater.org. $29–$64.