There’s a tranquil moment of healing in act two, when a teary-eyed Marwa turns to their older brother Yousif and pleads, “I don’t want 17 years to pass.” That instant captures the heartbeat of Layalina (lay-ali-na), a new play at the Goodman that aims to remind us what family can truly mean at best.
Layalina follows the Ibrahims, a multigenerational Assyrian family, as they strive to find a home in Skokie, Illinois. The first act takes place in Baghdad 2003 during the invasion of Iraq, and newlywed Layal and her family are preparing to immigrate to the U.S. due to the ongoing conflict. In the second act, which is set 17 years later in the suburbs of Chicago, Layal and her siblings, Marwa and Yousif, navigate their journeys of self-discovery, which involve coping with sibling rivalries, exploring queerness, and confronting their grief.
Through 4/2: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; also Tue 3/21 7:30 PM and Thu 3/23 and 3/30 2 PM; Sat 3/11 8 PM only, Sun 3/19 and 4/2 2 PM only; touch tour and audio description Sun 3/26 2 PM (touch tour 12:30 PM), ASL interpretation Sat 4/1 2 PM, Spanish subtitles Sat 4/1 8 PM, open captions Sun 4/2 2 PM; Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $15-$50
The playwright, Martin Yousif Zebari, is also Iraqi born and Assyrian American, but they say the play is only loosely based on the immigration story of their family, who moved to the U.S. in 2002. “As someone who grew up in a country that had wars every couple of years, we didn’t spend our time talking about the war or politics,” Zebari says. “It was like, ‘How do we survive? What are we doing for dinner tonight? When are you getting married? Who’s coming to the wedding?’”
Zebari wrote the first draft of this two-act play in November 2020—in the span of two months during peak lockdown—because they wanted to shatter the stereotypes that people often have about southwest Asian families. “It’s no longer about that because now it’s a story about a family,” Zebari says. “It’s about them being torn apart and finding each other.” Thanks to a sequence of collaborative workshops and readings, Goodman Theatre’s world premiere of Layalina may tell the tale of one particular family, but it speaks to familial truths that resonate with all of us, despite our varying circumstances.“There’s different people around the table, and I refuse not to take that into consideration,” says Zebari, who has prioritized supporting the SWANA [Southwest Asian and North African] actors in the room. “It’s a collection of different stories and different people’s realities.”
Layalina made its virtual debut in January 2021 at Goodman’s inaugural Future Labs, a workshop program for plays written by artists of color, where Zebari solely focused on script development. In December 2021, during Goodman’s 17th annual New Stages Festival, the play was staged as a developmental production, which provided an opportunity to visualize the story in a physical space and led to the reorganization of scenes and redesign of act two.
“That was the first time the play existed in three dimensions,” says Goodman’s director of new works, Jonathan L. Green, who’s also the line producer and one of the dramaturgs of Layalina. “[Martin] said, ‘I didn’t realize how much rewriting I would want to do once people were in proximity to each other.’
“Having a couple of years of hindsight has been really helpful because [Martin was] able to write the first act with some understanding of history and context,” Green says. “But because act two was happening as they were writing it, since that first reading in January of 2021 to now, they’ve been able to get a little more distant and understand how the two acts work together, and what character arcs began in act one and don’t actually finish until the very end of the play.”
“I have drawn inspiration from family stories that are rooted in people who stay busy with their hands,” says Zebari, who feels they’ve subconsciously been influenced by the works of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. (Coincidentally, the Goodman opens Robert Falls’s staging of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard right after Layalina.) “Most Chekhov plays are just families talking about their current circumstances while trying to stay busy with something else, so they don’t have to look the person they’re talking to in the eyes while they say this devastating thing.”
In Layalina, this manifests itself in the way Karima rolls dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) while she tells her daughter about their visa troubles, or in the way Marwa rolls a joint as they vent their frustrations with Layal’s girly dresses to their brother.
It’s obvious that Zebari is first and foremost an actor, as they’ve crafted a character-driven story infused with punchy dialogue that gently unveils the characters. “I just found it incredibly moving, and even though the characters are—in many ways—very different from me, I responded to it on an emotional and personal level,” Green says. Director Sivan Battat expressed similar sentiments, which was partly why they took on this project. “I fell deeply in love with the characters and with the way this play invites you to imagine your ancestors in moments of transformation and turmoil,” Battat says.
And in spite of Layalina‘s geopolitical backdrop, Battat insists that it’s a joyous play. “My vision is to tell a story of a family across generations, with trust and with heart, and with love and with humor,” Battat says. “And to, at all times, remember that we are not a tragedy in ourselves. We do not live our stories as if they’re tragedies. We live our stories as our truth.”
Battat views their directorial role as more of a facilitator, encouraging actors to be as imaginative and vulnerable as possible within this shared vision. For example, when staging a scene, Battat will prepare the set with all the props they believe the scene will need and then allow the actors to liberally move within the world they’ve created to discover what blocking feels natural and right. “I’m creating a container for the experimentation to feel free,” Battat says. “Because limitation breeds creativity.”
Layalina means “our nights” in Arabic, a tribute to cherished evenings in SWANA households, when families unwind, dine, and chat about their days and futures. Nighttime is also the setting for all the scenes. This is just one example of the several subtleties that make this production—the first world premiere at the Goodman by a SWANA playwright—so introspective. “Fabric and textiles are [also] important visual elements of this play,” Battat says. “And how it travels through the generations of these families.” As the play unfolds, we see the Ibrahims’ love of sewing passed down through their lineage, as well as their home’s fusion of southwest Asian decor and American furnishings to reflect both their displacement and assimilation. Even the characters’ clothes evolve as they grow and discover themselves.
Layalina ends on a simple yet sweet note, with two characters excited to explore their crushes on each other further. “This story of the Ibrahim family doesn’t end when the lights go down at the end of the show,” Battat says. “Life hurtles forward, and yet this moment that we end on, we get to turn towards hope and love.
“The biggest gift would be if someone walked away and said, ‘You know, there’s a family member or friend or a loved one who I really miss, and I haven’t spoken to in a while,’” Battat says. “And they give them a call.”