J Paul Nicholas, Arash Mokhtar & Hassan Nazari-Robati. Photo: Jonathan Roberts
The Corpse Washer
Adapted for the stage by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace
From the novel of the same name by Sinan Antoon
Directed by Mark Brokaw
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
A young man is raised with the expectation that he will follow in his father’s footsteps, working in the trade and carrying on an important tradition, but instead, he wants to follow his own path and become an artist. It is a classic coming-of-age narrative of a generational and cultural shift that is common enough in Western literature. By finding the same conflict in an Iraqi family, Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer shows just how universal fundamental storytelling forms can be.
Published in 2013 to great acclaim throughout the Arab world, Antoon did the translation into English himself. Now Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace have fashioned the story for the stage.
Jawad ( Arash Mokhtar) is the young son of a Shi’ite family of corpse washers and shrouders in Baghdad. The play is set in the years 1982 through 2010 and follows Jawad’s journey from childhood during a period of almost constant war: war with Iran, The Gulf War, and finally the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Which means that Jawad’s Father (J. Paul Nicholas) is kept very busy tending to bodies. It is a deeply religious funereal ritual that requires the body to be washed three times with a variety of elements, all accompanied by a recitative prayer asking forgiveness.
But, inspired by his Uncle Sabri (Nicholas again) leaves Baghdad and studies art, becoming a sculptor. Yet in the never-ending war, the bodies keep coming, including family and friends.
Antoon’s story feels resonant and uses the familiarity of these narrative tropes to invite us into the world of everyday Iraqis in a way that seems fresh, and the adaptation moves swiftly through the events of Jawad’s life; perhaps too swiftly. The rushed pace captures the urgency of war and violent death, but it sacrifices character development, reducing too much of the story into fleeting incidents. There is a powerful use of deceased characters advising Jawad whenever he is faced with a decision, but too often things come off as a little perfunctory. I wish more time and space had been given (there is no intermission) because The Corpse Washer feels very much like a personal, intimate story with an epic emotional arc that isn’t quite allowed to realize its fullest potential.
Director Mark Brokaw takes full advantage of the Bingham’s multiple stage entrances to create dynamic, geometric movements, and a bicycle ridden by two characters makes circles within the sharp angles. Heather Gilbert’s lighting and Luqman Brown’s sound never let up the tension of a country where explosions and jets flying overhead have become commonplace.
The cast, led by Arash Mokhtar as Jawad, do fine work, although the pace undercuts the nuance and facility that drifts on the fringes of so many scenes. They find the humor and some of the tenderness, but also manage the quicksilver transitions with precision.
In its final moments, The Corpse Washer discovers the grace and depth of feeling that has been elusive until then, all the more poignant for imagining what might have been.
Featuring: Arash Mokhtar, Mehry Eslaminia, J. Paul Nicholas, Johann George, Hasan Nazari-Robati, Diana Simonzadeh, Abraham Makany, & Gus Cuddy
The Corpse Washer
March 1 – April 7, 2019
Part of the 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.
2019 Arts-Louisville/Broadway World Theatre Award Sponsorship provided by