Toronto playwright and medical doctor Suvendrini Lena is carrying on the tradition of doctor/writer that dates back to the days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Anton Chekov. Her latest work, Rubble, opens at the Theatre Passe Muraille on Feb 25 and runs until (opening night, March 2) March 18.
Rubble, is based on the poetry of Palestinian writers Mahmoud Darwish (translated by Fady Joudah) and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, and employs the backdrop of the crisis in Palestine as a terrain from which to examine the value of art.
That alone could be construed as controversial, says Lena, who was born in England to a family from Sri Lanka.
“I think it’s [controversial] because it’s set in Gaza, which is an occupied territory. Even if I say that, that becomes a controversial statement. It depends on your perspective,” she says, of Rubble. “There are scenes of a Palestinian family living through the siege of Gaza in 2014. So there is that actual historical element to it. And on the other hand, it really is a play that is about poetry. The entry point into that whole situation is a poem that was written by a poet named Lena Khalaf Tuffaha.”
Lena, who is a practising neurologist and assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry, worked in Palestine as a medical student while attending the University of Toronto. It wasn’t during the siege, but she did see the impact of bombings first-hand, and it left her changed.
“Sometimes you write just because you need to get something out. And I think that’s where this play comes from,” she says. “And the reason why I think poetry is helpful is because you need a way to understand experiences. And so connecting with the way that Palestinian poets had expressed these experiences through their poetry was helpful and meaningful.”
Lena explains that she’s always wanted to be a writer, but as the child of an immigrant family, she had parents determined to set her off on a course of financial success: lawyer, engineer or, in her case, doctor. But her creative side would find a way to burrow to the surface.
“As a doctor, to understand the body and the struggles that people go through. I mean, there’s lots of grist for the writer’s mill there,” Lena says. “But I always wanted to be a writer, so my journey was about how to create a space for myself in which to write in a way that’s going to be meaningful for me and, hopefully, for others. I like theatre because you can deal with conflicts, ideas, arguments. The audience gets to make up its own mind.”
Rubble is a dramatic imagining of the celebrated poetry of Mahmoud Darwish (translated by Fady Joudah) and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha. The drama of the play unfolds as a mother and her family in Gaza receive a courtesy call: “You have 58 seconds to leave your home before an explosion. Run.” Through the play, Lena raises questions about the meaning of poetry in the midst of war.
Rubble is directed by Aluna Theatre’s Beatriz Pizano, and features a performance ensemble that includes Roula Said, Lara Arabian, Parya Heravi, Sam Khalilieh, and Yousef Kadoura.
Rubble runs at Theatre Passe Muraille until March 18.