By: Alfredo Aparicio/Staff Writer
Sitting on cushions onstage and listening to live, original music while watching a magical, rich story unfold is just a few of the novel features the audience attending “Arabian Nights” will be apart of, which is directed by Phillip Church and written by Mary Zimmerman.
“Live music far outweighs the creative experience for the audience. At times, the musicians are in the audience, and at other times, they are onstage. Our audience is also onstage as part of the ruler Sharyarar’s court, lying back on cushions, so having the musicians in such close contact will be exciting for the audience,” said Church, an associate professor at the Department of Theatre.
While the play does contain musical cues in the original script, Church is using the original music of three students and the voice of another to capture the Arabian culture in its entire splendor. “Arabian literature and culture, in general, is very much tied in with music; it is a big part of the cultural life of Arabians. Audiences today, because they are so connected to the cinematic and video worlds, really enjoy theater that develops music as part of the dramatic fabric.”
Jessica Halim Tohme, a freshman nursing major, who will sing in Arabic, was introduced to music at an early age. “I can clearly state that if it weren’t for my mother, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. It was she who had introduced me to the works of the Celine Dion and Frank Sinatra.”
Having a parent who is Middle Eastern as well as having lived in Lebanon for seven years exposed Tohme to the language, which has since become second nature to her. “In a way, it is through family tradition that I got exposed to this type or genre of music, but it was my overwhelming interest in the language that forced me to continue singing in that language.”
Tohme, who came from Coral Reef Senior High School, has also written minor compositions in the past and has been working closely with Carla Cao, a student at the New World School of Arts. “I can’t take all the credit. A lot of the writing will come from accompanying musician and friend Cao. If anything, I’ll be doing the Arabic translating and adding a few motifs that I’ve come up with.”
Cao, who will supply the music of the clarinet, has also had previous experience in writing and began her musical journey at an early age with the keyboard.
“I have composed original music before, but never for a play. The process is harder in some regards but definitely easier in others. It is harder in that there are more non-musical variables to take into account when composing for a play,” said Cao. “In the case of plays, though, there is already a story being told, and as a composer, you need to try to fit the music to the story of the play instead of the other way around.”
Joey Basna, a senior religious studies major, who will be playing the Darbuka drum, did not get into music until he was 18, when he began to drum with other people. For him, the turning point was five years ago when he met a Turkish student, Osman, who introduced him to other instruments such as the drums, guitars, bass, keyboards, as well as vocals.
“The difficult part to me is connecting with the other musicians; it is really hard if everyone involved does not see eye to eye. To me, working with musicians that are good listeners make things easier, because it allows chemistry to develop and ideas to flow,” Basna said.
Basna, who has known Church for a couple of years and worked with him on a dramatized staged reading of “Samson Agonistes” by John Milton, did not audition, although he described “Arabian Nights” as his most important play so far. “It is the first play in which I am getting sized for a costume and months of preparation are going into it. I am excited to have this opportunity, although I lack the formal education.”
Omar Bam, a senior theater major, will be pulling double duty, playing various characters including Wazir, Clarinetist and Ishak of Mosul, as well as supplying the percussion section when not in character.
“[When I came to the University] I actually was torn between pursuing music or a degree in acting,” Bham said. “I kind of fumbled with both my first year, but I eventually needed to pick one. I chose acting, but have maintained a relationship with the School of Music through the marching band, which I was a part of for three years. I was privileged enough to have the opportunity to lead the drum line as section leader last year.”
His experience with the percussion ensemble on campus also exposed Bham with playing rhythmically complex pieces of music and other instruments like the lids, marimba and drums. Having worked with Church as well on previous productions, Bham was sought out once again for his reliability as a musician, although he did have to audition for his role in the play.
“I haven’t ever composed this style of music, or really listened to it much, so it should be a new and interesting venue to grow as an artist. I am used to writing music, but mainly drum or piano music,” said Bham. “I’m excited and hope that we can create the atmosphere that makes the show just that much more authentic while gaining new knowledge of Middle Eastern music and rhythms.”
“Arabian Nights” premieres Friday, Mar. 2 and runs through Mar. 11.