This may be the last week that Ibrahim Miari is taking the stage at the Walnut Street Theatre in The Humans, but he’ll be back in September to open its Independence Studio on 3 2018-19 season with a one-man show.
For now, however, he’s enjoying the last few performances of the Tony Award-winning play The Humans, which follows a family celebrating Thanksgiving at the daughter’s new apartment in Manhattan in an extended 90-minute scene.
Miari, who complements his love of performing with teaching Arabic and Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, plays Richard Saad, the 20-something daughter’s 38-year-old boyfriend in grad school studying to be a social worker.
While there isn’t much known about his background, Miari said they do know he will have access to a large trust fund once he turns 40 and he suffered from depression in his 30s.
Amid fights that break out between daughter and parents — it is Thanksgiving dinner after all — Saad plays peacekeeper and tries to defuse the tension, though he spends much of the play’s beginning tossing a salad and preparing sweet potatoes.
“I like Richard. He’s funny, too,” Miari added. “Some of the lines, he’s so cheesy sometimes, he can be hilarious.”
It’s a role Miari has enjoyed since the beginning of its run in January, with the curtain closing March 4. It’s his first gig with the Walnut.
“The show’s wonderful, and our performance has been one great performance after another,” he said. “Everybody’s very professional, very talented and it’s been really wonderful.”
Performing has been Miari’s passion since he was as young as 7 growing up in Acre, Israel. Every time there was a school event that offered a chance to perform, whether acting or dancing, he would make his way on stage.
“People in my classroom always knew that if there was a request for an actor, they would point to me to volunteer,” he recalled with a laugh.
When he was 19, he learned there was a theater company less than 10 minutes from his house, and he was invited to watch a rehearsal. When he got there, the director instead invited him to join the actors.
“That became my not only passion, but my profession and my career,” he said.
He joined that company, Acco Theatre Center, for years, creating ensemble pieces as well as original and solo pieces in both Hebrew and Arabic. He learned how to dance and to meditate and was able to teach as well. “It was a journey,” he laughed.
He came stateside for the first time in the early 2000s to participate in a festival at a Jewish community center in Manhattan and returned a few years later as part of The Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco.
In 2005 he met his wife in Boston, where he worked a summer at a peace camp running the theater department and working with Israeli and Palestinian kids. He moved there while he pursued his MFA in theater education at Boston University and remained in Boston until 2012 when he moved to the Philly area and started teaching at Penn.
While in grad school, he decided to use a one-man piece he had been working on as his thesis project. After a lot of writing, deleting, rewriting and erasing, eventually it became In Between, which he will perform at the Walnut starting Sept. 25.
The play began as a way to explore his identity as the son of a Jewish mother and Muslim father, speaking both Hebrew and Arabic at home. Growing up, though they moved around a bit, his was the only Jewish/Muslim family living in an all-Jewish neighborhood for many years. He went to both Jewish and Arab schools.
“I wanted to write a piece that basically was inspired by my life experiences navigating between these two cultures, these two languages and the tension between the two sides,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk about politics per se, but I wanted to share my story and the nuances of what’s it like to grow up in Israel, period. As an Arab, period. As half-Jewish, period. … I wanted also to write a piece about the ironies of when people mistake me for one thing, and sometimes it can be funny and sometimes it can be upsetting.”
For instance, he uses examples of getting stopped at airport security for extra questioning and the change in conversation and tone before and after a security guard looks at his passport — something he’s quite familiar with.
Getting stopped at security is one of the two stories that create the main thread of the play in addition to the questions he and his then-fiancee — who is Jewish — had to face as they prepared to get married. Namely, who will marry them?
His mother and father are characters in the play, as well as other figures like a rabbi, a sheik, an airport security guard, his mother-in-law and others.
“The story of the play is what defines identity? Is it political? Is it social? Is it cultural? There are so many categories that you can label identity and I explore that,” he said. “My answer would be everything. Everything defines who you are.”
Having dual parts of his own identity shaped how he looks at the broader picture, and he hopes the play will do the same for the audience.
“My play is always going to be a relevant story because it’s a personal story,” he said, noting that he’s seen how people connect to it in their own ways from past performances he’s done.
“I’m hoping that when people come to see In Between, they will have a little bit of additional perspective so they would not come with an agenda,” he added, “and even if they do, I’ll be able to give them a little bit more of a different kind of perspective, that things are not black and white. You have to be able and open to listening to the other side, to really understand and have compassion.”