A plea for understanding the pain of being Muslin-American, Sevan’s First Down at the 59E59 Theaters focuses on the plight of an adored football player who decides to kneel and pray during the national anthem rather than stand at polite attention, hand over heart.
Quarterback George Berri (a handsome, well-built, sensitive Peter Romano) is a mid-westerner with pale skin and a name that doesn’t necessarily connote his Muslim upbringing. After the Star-Spangled Banner is played, Berri, a young Lebanese/American, is first seen. He is on his knees praying in the locker room well after the game is over.
Soon Coach Bill Fitzgerald (Larry Bull, finding every nuance in what could have been a clichéd macho role) enters and the structure of First Down begins to manifest itself: three conversations of increasing emotional power beginning with Coach Bill, then Berri’s agent and finally his impassioned mother.
Each of these three has ulterior motives and to each Berri makes his ardent plea for understanding why his gesture will be so important.
Coach Bill’s argument is that George’s “coming out” would damage the team and football in general by bringing unwanted attention to the sport and disrupt the team spirit despite Colin Kaepernick’s taking the knee during the national anthem. He even warns Berri that he would need protection.
Berri’s agent, Marina Khawly, another Lebanese/American, but a Christian, is more concerned with Berri’s value as a commercial spokesman. She also argues that she, too, despite not being Muslim, has been discriminated against by those not willing or able to care about her religion. She realistically points out that “to a crowd hyped on beer and corn dogs, who are still pissed about BLM, wearing masks, and gender neutral pronouns” his action will backfire.
Olivia Abiassi finds the humanity in this agent, a character that is usually portrayed as money-grubbing. Abiassi’s interpretation of Khawly is fully rounded and very human.
The appearance of Berri’s mother, Hana Berri, takes him by surprise. The majority of their dialogue is in Arabic, mostly translated with titles flashed on the back wall. At first, Hana fusses about the locker room, amazed that the men shower together and tells him that he is too skinny. She even urges him to marry Marina.
Then she gets down to business. She upbraids him, facetiously asking him if he wants to be an Imam. She tells him that he is young and doesn’t know what’s good for him. She lands her strongest punch by telling him that they moved to the U.S. to avoid exactly the kind of exposure he is intending to put his family through.
Hend Ayoub as Hana, even speaking Arabic, is heartbreaking as she appeals to her son not to besmirch all Muslim/Americans with his heedless act of defiance.
The realistic, but too neat, locker room set designed by Jacob A. Climer is backed by a full wall of videos—projection design by Stivo Arnoczy—showing what I assume are Muslim footballers and soccer players seen on the playing fields and carousing in the locker rooms.
Christopher Brown’s initially chilly lighting morphs into dramatic highlighting by the end the play. The costumes by Dina El-Aziz deftly define the characters from Berri’s warm-ups to Hana’s lack of a hijab (until she uses her scarf to cover her head to make a point).
The major flaw in Sevan’s play is that not one character points out the sources of Islamophobia. Sevan does have Berri recite a litany of Muslim victims of violence in a tirade toward the end of the play, but it is too little, too late. Some will feel the play does not go far enough in covering both sides of the issue.
First Down (through March 5, 2022)
Noor Theatre, Inc.
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59E59.org
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission