Swimming Into the Realities of War

Swimming Into the Realities of War

June 30, 2023
by Riis Williams, Vineyard Gazette

While treading water in the open ocean off the coast of San Diego, playwright Mona Mansour and her nephew debated the morality of war. With a family of Lebanese Civil War survivors and her nephew nearing U.S. Army deployment, Ms. Mansour felt cognitive dissonance and frustration with his future.

Together, the two contemplated their relationship and Middle Eastern politics and identity, as waves carried them out to sea.

Play was inspired by events in the playwright’s life. — Maria Thibodeau

That was 13 years ago, but the moment continues in Ms. Mansour’s new play, titled We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War, which tells the story of their thoughtful swim. The play makes its east coast debut this summer at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, opening June 30 and running through July 15.

The daughter of a Lebanese father and white mother, Ms. Mansour felt especially called to playwriting after moving to New York City in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Her work frequently explores Arab-American identities and experiences, and is inspired by her family’s culture and history.

For this play, which she described as uniquely personal, she sought the approval of family members for the first time.

“[My nephew has] never seen it, but I sent it to him before [its release],” she said. “I’ve written about my family all my life but I’d never done that. When I showed it to him many years ago he was just like, ‘Hey, Aunt Mona, this is really good. How did you remember all of this stuff?’”

The play initially premiered five years ago in San Francisco. Thanks to its current director, Johanna McKeon, whose work often comes to the Vineyard, it has finally traveled east.

Ms. McKeon is also the associate director of Funny Girl on Broadway, but when opportunity called to temporarily trade Manhattan’s August Wilson Theatre for the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, she couldn’t resist.

“I feel like Manhattan is this giant magnet that sometimes makes it difficult for you to leave,” Ms. McKeon said. “But I knew that coming to this Island, where I’ve directed so many plays, would relax me and loosen up my creativity. I think that I’ll then see Funny Girl with fresher eyes and it will be good for that play, too.”

We Swim, We Talk, We Go To War also feels particularly close to home for Ms. McKeon, whose family is from San Diego.

“The beaches that this play is referencing and where the play takes place are beaches that I grew up on and love and go to on Christmas Day with my mother every year,” she said.

She even plans to use her home videos in the play to set the San Diego beach scene.

For actor Amin El Gamal, who portrays the character based on Ms. Mansour’s nephew, the play is far out of his comfort zone.

Mr. Gamal comes from a family of Muslim Egyptian immigrants. He was the first openly queer Muslim actor to play a leading television role in Hollywood. Television is his bread and butter, he said, and taking the stage to play a character he doesn’t relate to has been a challenge.

Play was written by Mona Mansour and directed by Johanna McKeon. — Maria Thibodeau

“I was kind of terrified,” he said. “I’m like this squirrelly, tall, fully-Middle Eastern queer person playing an early 20s, mostly-white military guy.”

But even in the play’s short two-and-a-half week rehearsal period, Mr. Gamal has managed to navigate the character and examine some of his own prejudices about the military.

“It really stretches me and makes me think about all of my own perspectives,” he said. “You can’t just assume that all military people are going to be straight. I also spoke to a friend’s partner who is a veteran to learn more.”

To get even more in character, Amin and his castmates took a trip to the beach for a dip. In the play, he uses a rolling chair to convey swimming, but plunging into the Vineyard waters and talking with his fellow actors brought the story more to life, he said.

Ms. Mansour won’t be on-Island to see the play until its final few performances. But with deep trust in Ms. McKeon and the actors, she said she is hopeful the productionm will provoke new conversations about family and foreign politics for audience members.

“In this play, the character of the aunt is critical of something she’s ignorant about, and that’s me pointing the finger at myself,” she said. “I just hope people begin to think more and this story stays with them.”