Torange Yeghiazarian: Let’s get right to it. I remember first reading URGE FOR GOING back in 2008. What was the “urge” for writing this play and how has the play evolved through the years?
Mona Mansour: It started off as me wanting to explore my father’s homeland, Lebanon. And from there, I began to find out more and more about the situations for Palestinians there, and was struck with how Chekhovian, in a way, their existence is. They’re in this eternal waiting game, in temporary camps set up over 60 years ago, in some cases just miles from what is now the Israel-Lebanon border, waiting to go home.
It was my first big production, and premiered at the Public Theater in April 2011 as part of their Public LAB series. It was an incredible experience, just huge for me–and it was fast. We had two weeks to rehearse before previews started. Now it’s been two years and I’m excited to look again at this piece that really is fairly autobiographical and very close to my heart, and have more perspective on it. And make it better. And I’m so, so excited to work with Evren Odcikin! The crush is mutual! He’s so smart and so intuitive in his approach to the writing — I can’t wait to see what he does with the play.
TY: What role does identity play in URGE FOR GOING? Yours, the characters’ and possibly even the viewers?
MM: How to even address that fully? Identity is just endlessly fascinating and endlessly complicated to me. I grew up in the same house as my brother and sister (clearly!) but I know they don’t identify themselves as Arab-American or Lebanese-American, and I absolutely do. That part of my cultural background, my childhood and beyond, has completely influenced how I view things personally and politically (if we even want to make those distinctions). I wrote this play for American audiences, most definitely–but I want it to reach Arab and Arab-American audiences. I don’t think stories about the Middle East are being told enough, and they surely aren’t being told truthfully.
One of the challenges in this kind of a piece is, how much do what you need to help out an American audience? Sometimes you have to, I’ve found, add exposition you wouldn’t want to normally–but without which an American audience will be lost.
TY: Mona, you have received a lot of positive attention in the last two years. You have been awarded the Whiting Prize and are slated for world premiere production at the Steppenwolf in addition to a west coast premiere at Golden Thread. Congratulations!
How does it feel? What are the rewards and challenges of living the life of a busy playwright?
MM: It’s so funny to think about all that. I’ve had some lovely things line up. The Whiting was a phenomenal experience–you don’t even know you’ve been nominated, there’s nothing you do along the way, and you just get a phone call out of the blue telling you you’ve won!
I think right now the biggest challenge is juggling projects, to be honest. I have a lot of new work coming up, in different stages, so I try to stay in each play as best I can, even if I’ve had to put one on the back burner for a time. I still have my day job life, but luckily that’s freelance, so I can’t complain about that too much. I guess what I mean about juggling is also making sure I am really grounded in the work of each play as I turn my attention to it. I just finished a week in Chicago, doing a workshop of my California play, The Way West, at Steppenwolf. And it’s so funny to go from that world (Stockton, pretty much now) to, for example, Urge for Going (a Palestinian camp in Lebanon, 2003). But I do sort of love the action of jumping from one world to another. And it definitely reflects the split-cultural existence I had growing up.
You can catch the West Coast premiere of Urge for Going (November 14- December 8, 2013) at Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco. Read More