By CJ Williams
‘Paradise’ – Written by Laura Maria Censabella; Directed by Shana Gozansky; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design by Karen Perlow. Presented by Central Square Theater, 450 Mass Ave. Cambridge, MA -2139 through May 7
Hell is other people, goes the famous saying. But perhaps the proverb is just plain wrong. In “Paradise”, we get a glimpse of another possibility: maybe, just maybe, Paradise – and freedom from prejudice, loneliness, and lovelessness, can only be found by bridging the judgment gap between you and me.
This theme, raised in this World Premiere by Laura Maria Censabella now being staged at Central Square Theater, not only makes for rousing entertainment, it places it in the concrete: issues of immigration, faith, culture, and violent prejudice – are almost too timely. “Paradise” is set in the close-to-home arena of a public high school in Brooklyn, where (unbeknownst to us and students), Dr. Royston teaches only because he was routed from Columbia after some extremely unprofessional behavior. He teaches a crew of poor, gangbanger high schoolers, all of whom are disinterested – except one.
The one unbelievably earnest kid is a 17 year old, hijab-wearing Muslim girl named Yasmeen. An orphan, she is as dedicated to her Muslim faith and family as she is to going to Columbia on a science scholarship.
But can Muslim women become Ph.D’s, internationally acclaimed scientists – and be traditional Muslims? We find ourselves uncomfortably examining our own prejudices as Yasmeen forces Dr. R to examine his. But the playwright doesn’t write cardboard cut-outs to force a point. Instead, she allows two people – these utterly opposite characters – to genuinely come face to face with each other; and the perhaps unjust expectations by Muslim culture of Muslim women (and is it faith or culture?) is something Yasmeen confronts just as upfront and courageously as the play confronts mainstream majority misperceptions of Islam.
What the playwright does so deftly – and what makes “Paradise” (a conversation spanning one high school semester and two hours of our time) soar, rather than flop – is give us fully-human characters, and lets us watch them develop, separating their opinions and personal experiences from any dogmatic declarations on their faith, lack of faith, opinions, or cultures, from practice or perception. (Except perhaps when it comes to Christianity – but neither Dr. R’s abandoned or at least unpracticed childhood faith, are focused on, a loss that would have been too much material to cover in one go). Ultimately, we encounter people – just as the characters on the stage encounter each other.
Both Caitlin Nasema Cassidy and Barlow Adamson as Yasmeen and Dr. Royston plunge themselves into their roles with a wholeness that doesn’t leave us any option but to follow. Central Square Theater, as per usual, utilizes small and quirky space to great effect, and a single set, stage direction, lighting, and time/scene shifts using a blood-pumping Middle Eastern hip-hop track keeps the pacing and practical action of the setting smooth and neat. The dialogue – the core of this piece – shines.
And these people on stage argue, laugh, teach, develop, learn – teacher from student and student from teacher – in a relational journey that mirrors, well, a kind of paradise. Because we can only speak honestly with someone we love, or are learning to love. And in that kind of a conversation, people may shout, feel agony, disagree, but they don’t throw bombs.
If we – the play posits with preaching – could connect with as much honesty as these two , we wouldn’t need war.
Not that that saves either character from pain, judgments, and misunderstandings. But as we get to know both – Dr. Royston’s desperate seeking for love in science as a philosophy without faith, Yasmeen’s passionate search for truth and beauty, balancing her brilliance and self with her commitment to communal cohesion, and her God – the audience can’t but look at two human beings easily discounted because of failures, or “foreignness” – as not so different from themselves.
So is Hell other people? I think it’s fairly clear that both Yasmeen and Dr. Royslton were closer to Hell alone. Hell is all me, all the time, always right.
And in Censebella’s’s storycrafting, at its best, Paradise not only touched my heart, it got me laughing and weeping, and it did what stories are meant to do: make “What If?” the tool for changing our narrative, giving us a look at solutions instead of problems, bringing us back to the Paradise of seeing our commonality. For more info, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/paradise/