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Cultivating Empathy: Reflections on the Palestinian Experience Through Mona Mansour’s Vagrant Trilogy.


Writer Ángela María Ramos spoke with THE VAGRANT TRILOGY's cast members Tala Ashe and Ramsey Faragallah about working on this story for over 10 years, and what it means to bring it to life at this moment in history at The Public Theater.

Wounded and displaced from their home, the Palestinian community has become a symbol of resilience across the world. Playwright Mona Mansour brings nuance and perspective into this ongoing reality with her play, THE VAGRANT TRILOGY, a story told in three parts about Adham, a Palestinian Wordsworth scholar, who goes to London with his new wife to deliver a lecture. When war breaks out at home, he is forced to make a choice that will change the rest of his life. 

Seeing a Palestinian story in an American theater stage is a rare occurrence. In this sense, THE VAGRANT TRILOGY is a brave, unique, and painfully raw show reshaping the way in which Palestinian stories are told. 

“Mona’s work is particularly important to me. I’m not playing the same character I played 13 years ago. I listen to the play and it is odd because some of what’s said is deep, is cellular, is ingrained in me. When a character says a line, I have a history with that line. I’ve had to work on not listening to certain words and not have a reaction that wasn’t honest to my character,” says Ramsey Faragallah, who plays Ghassan, Abir’s brother. Faragallah is of Palestinian descent and his family lost everything after being displaced in 1948. 

Mansour wrote the first part, URGE FOR GOING, when applying to  The Public’s Emerging Writers Group (EWG) in 2008. Tala Ashe and Faragallah have been working on the show since. 

“Working on this play is an ongoing challenge because of the nature of the play and how long it is. We’re still shaking off our old characters and in every part of the trilogy we’re treating it as its own world, with its own aesthetics,” says Ashe, who originally played Jamila, Adham’s daughter, and now plays Abir, Adham’s wife. 

The following year, 2009, Mansour wrote THE HOUR OF FEELING, while a member of  the EWG’s second cohort. In 2013, the trilogy was completed with THE VAGRANT

“Working on this for so long has been interesting for me because I’ve had to learn a lot about my own history through the show…I’m sort of helping to complete my own personal picture of my family and the challenges that they have been through” shared Faragallah, who used to play Adham in the original productions of the play.

Over 10 years later, the three parts have gained more resonance and relevance to our times. Mansour’s work reminds us of the fragility of life and it draws parallels to war and refugees elsewhere. 

“In these moments, I think of Ukranians, and it resonates with my family. It makes me think of all the people who lived in a beautiful country, who had their land and their rich culture, and one day bombs are falling and you have to pick up your stuff and leave everything behind” says Faragallah

The play gives voice to those who have become mere numbers when reported by the media. More importantly, THE VAGRANT TRILOGY brings specificity into the Palestinian experience, acting as a magnifying glass that looks with special detail at all the intricacies of being Palestinian. 

“There were many historical events that Palestinians feel in their bones. Dates, words, declarations, and pieces of paper that changed their lives and their families forever. Understanding those has been integral to my process,” says Ashe, who is Iranian-American and learned Arabic for the role. 

Mansour’s work does not exploit trauma but instead brings the audience closer to a community that is widely misunderstood and stigmatized. At its core, this play returns humanity to a community that has been dehumanized, whose pain is often invisible and whose resilience in order to survive is wrongly labeled as subversive.  

“It seems like such a low bar, isn’t it? For the takeaway to be a lesson on the humanity of Palestinians…but an understanding of the struggle is important. It’s a lesson on how politics and circumstances can transform your life in an instant. It’s universal. Trauma [in communities that go through war] is in their DNA, it’s intergenerational.” says Faragallah

THE VAGRANT TRILOGY asks the audience to look at these characters by all their complexity, in their joy, their anger, their disillusion. It asks them to consider the roads not taken, choice as a luxury, resilience as nothing but remaining open to love and forgiveness. Above all, it begs us to not forget the dreams of this Palestinian family, of all Palestinians. 

“It always felt important, it always felt necessary to tell a Palestinian story. It felt important 11 years ago, and it continues to feel important. I hope the audience comes to see it with an open mind,” Ashe says. 

Mansour’s outstanding storytelling is changing the landscape of the American theater. Her rich writing challenges us to hold multiple truths at the same time, in this case, that the existence of extreme hardship is part of the Palestinian experience, yet it is not suffering that marks their identity, but rather the unwavering hope that lives inside of them, and that perseveres as their legacy. 

As her last thoughts, Ashe adds, “Something that I’m cognizant of is that I don’t want this play or any play about the Middle Eastern experience to elicit sympathy. I would like it to elicit empathy. Hopefully there will be more understanding about what happened to this particular man and his family, and maybe it will make you see [that it] is not as far from you as you think. If the audience can take this home with them, I think we’ve succeeded.”

THE VAGRANT TRILOGY is now playing at The Public Theater through Sunday, May 15.

Ángela María Ramos is an actor/songwriter/writer born and raised in Colombia of Italian descent. She has debuted and performed her original music and writing Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway. She has also performed for the Nobel Women’s Initiative, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the National Abortion Campaign in Colombia. Ángela is heading to pursue her MFA in Acting at Meadows School of the Arts in Southern Methodist University as part of the Class of 2025. She stands in solidarity with all Palestinians who have perished in their quest for liberation.

This piece was developed with the BIPOC Critics Lab, a new program founded by Jose Solís training the next generation of BIPOC journalists. Follow on Twitter: @BIPOCCriticsLab.

PICTURED ABOVE: Tala Ashe (left) and Hadi Tabbal in THE VAGRANT TRILOGY
PICTURED BELOW: Hadi Tabbal (left) and Ramsey Faragallah in THE VAGRANT TRILOGY
both photos by Joan Marcus