Interview with Samah Sabawi

Multiple-award-winning playwright Samah Sabawi’s production THEM is set to play at Sydney’s Riverside Theatre 28-29 July.

We were fortunate to sit down with Sabawi in the lead up to the show and hear all about her journey into Australia’s theatre scene, the writing of THEM and the ongoing struggles people from refugee backgrounds continue to face as they make new lives in Australia.

What made you decide to become a playwright, and how did you establish yourself in Australia’s theatre scene?  

I grew up in a world where storytelling and poetry were as essential for survival as the air we breathe. When my family was forced out of our homeland in Palestine, we left with only the shirts on our backs. Suddenly poor and stateless, it was stories that sustained us. They empowered us with the wisdom of our ancestors, reminding us where we come from, and helping us expand the horizons of our dreams. As I grew older and as I became more privileged, I felt I had a responsibility to write our stories and the stories of other refugees, in a way that is accessible informative and humane. Theatre is the perfect platform for this; it allows us to offer audiences glimpses into lives they may not otherwise have access to.  

My first play to be staged in Australia was Tales of a City by the Sea. The play is a love story set in Gaza, the city of my birth. We had a reading at La Mama Theatre in 2012, and I remember someone pointing out to me that the woman sitting in the back row was their artistic director, Liz Jones. I had no idea who Liz was until I later met her and learned of the incredible role she plays in supporting new and emerging writers. I also discovered how brave she is. It takes bravery to platform a Palestinian love story, knowing the kind of reaction anything Palestinian can trigger. Liz programmed Tales of a City by the Sea at La Mama in 2014, and again in 2016. It was that play that entered me into the Australian theatre scene. Without Liz’s support, I may never have been given a chance. The sell-out success of both seasons is a testimony to the power of storytelling and its ability to uphold humanity above politics and to triumph above racism, discrimination and hate.  

I understand the show was developed in consultation with people living in conflict zones and displaced by war, can you tell me a bit about this process?  

I wrote the first draft of the play in a hotel room in Helsinki in 2015, as protestors outside the hotel were burning crosses and calling on the government to stop the ‘flood of refugees’ from entering their country. It wasn’t hard to find the stories to write. When I hear the word ‘refugee’ I see familiar faces; my parents, aunties, uncles, cousins, and friends, and I hear their stories play in my head. I see the faces of the ones who remain under the falling bombs and the faces of the ones who decided to run. I see families swimming in sewage rivers in Europe, others digging through the earth a tunnel under Israel’s high security wall. I see children on leaky boat and celebrate when friends find a second chance in life. Refuge.

Although THEM is set in an unnamed city, much of the play is based on stories from Yarmouk refugee camp. After writing the first draft, it was important for me to engage with newly arrived refugees from Syria and to share with them the script and listen to their concerns and feedback. I wanted to make sure the play was as authentic as possible in conveying the stories of those who may not have the privilege that I do to write them.   

Tell me about the experience of developing THEM through Melbourne Theatre Company’s Cybec Electric program and its first season at La Mama. How does it feel to now be bringing the show to Sydney?  

I’m so excited the play is coming to Sydney, and while on that, may I send a shout-out to the team at Critical Stage for putting together our tour! Yes, it has been a long journey that began with a reading in the home of our producer Lara Week, attended by many of our friends in theatre, including Chris Mead (at the time Literary Director at Melbourne Theatre Company).  This was followed by a two-week creative development directed by Bagryana Popov, and with a full cast and our creative team, letting me see and feel how the script lived onstage. The final chapter of the play’s development came when Chris invited me to take part in MTC’s Cybec Electric program. After all this workshopping the play was ready for the stage and La Mama once again welcomed our (sold out!) premiere production. I am grateful for that journey, for all the support, and I’m proud to see the work continue to be performed to audiences and to schools in cities and in regional theatres around Australia.   

Why is THEM important in the Australian theatre scene?  

My husband and I share an ongoing joke: whenever we sit in a beautiful park or walk along a gorgeous sandy beach, and we see the relaxed friendly faces around us, we say—Do they really need to know how ugly the world can be? Why do we burden them with our horrible stories? Why should we tell them about wars and struggles? 

Truth be told, I sometimes wish we could all live in a bubble and pretend the world doesn’t exist outside our calm borders. But we know it does. We know our local politics have an impact on the world. We know that we are cruel to refugees. We live on stolen land. We other newcomers. We are riddled with racism and discrimination. Our beautiful parks and gorgeous sunny beaches hide from view the massacres that have taken place on this land. THEM is important because it doesn’t shy away from bursting the bubble. It confronts and demands that we think of our politics and our complicity.   

What excites you most about THEM? If there was only one idea/message from THEM that every audience member could take away with them, what would you want it to be?  

I want us to see ourselves in them. 

What type of wine would you pair with THEM, and why? 

I love the gleam in the eyes of my pious Muslim relatives when they raise their non-alcoholic champagne glasses on NY’s eve, smiling naughtily as if they’ve found a loophole to a delicious sin. This always is followed by the annual joke about the need to assign a designated driver. Muslim wine humour never goes out of fashion!  So, I suggest we pair this play with the most exquisite non-alcoholic champagne! Cheers! Sahteen!  

Purchase your ticket to THEM here.

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