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‘Corpse Washer’ reflects a partnership of poetic writers

Gus Cuddy and Arash Mokhtar in "The Corpse Washer," part of the 2019 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Photo by Jonathan Roberts. Courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.

By Cole Tanner

Floyd Central High School, Class of 2019

“I don’t think I could write with just anybody. Sim has a brilliant mind, an informed mind, and a poetic mind,” said Naomi Wallace of Ismail Khalidi, co-writer on “The Corpse Washer,” a play in this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Wallace had five plays produced for the Humana Festival between 1996 and 2009. By working on this play with Khalidi, whom she calls Sim, she has found a true partnership.

Wallace’s use of “poetic, highly-original language” in her own work was cited when she was

named a MacArthur Fellow in 1999.

Playwright Naomi Wallace. Courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.

“We committed to staying close to the spirit of the novel,” Wallace said, “while giving ourselves the freedom to re-imagine Jawad’s story for the stage.”

It is a very personal story. Jawad never leaves the stage during the nearly two-hour

performance. Everything seen is filtered for the audience through the eyes of this one man as he matures and becomes wiser. He is haunted by the people of his past, to the point where they affect his decisions of the present.

The story seems a logical choice for the poetic and sociopolitical writing team.

Wallace recalled sharing the first draft with Antoon.

“He approved, and he even said he liked the humor in our play, which he felt was lacking in his novel,” she said.

He also welcomed the idea of adapting his novel to the stage and generally kept out of the

process, trusting what Wallace and Khalidi were doing with the story.

Wallace described writing the play of “The Corpse Washer” as an attempt to create characters that are rarely seen on stage in our society.

“What about the children of Iraq, who are actually under the bombs?” she asked.

Playwright Ismail Khalidi. Courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville

The writers wanted to make a story about truly human characters — about love and growing up, and humor amidst the dark times.

“Sim and I did our best to demonstrate the importance of humor in these same difficult circumstances,” she said.

In desperate times, holding on to certain small things can matter and comfort.

The play’s minimalist set design by Kimie Nishikawa helps demonstrate this further. Largely

consisting of drab grays and brown to portray the ravaged Iraq as a result of decades of war,

certain scenes bring with them levity through the creative use of colorful props or costumes by designer Dina Abd El-Aziz.

“The Corpse Washer” marks an ongoing partnership for Wallace and Khalidi, who also co-wrote “Returning to Haifa,” which premiered last year in London, and edited the 2015 collection “Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora.” Given their history and results of “The Corpse Washer,” one imagines their partnership will continue.



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