TheaterWinter 2023

Family Dyamics: Preview of “Layalina” World Premiere at Goodman Theatre

Emerging Playwright Martin Yousif Zebari’s heavily touted new work tackles the questions that challenge family when a new culture threatens the cohesiveness of the family unit.

There’s quite a bit to unpack, both literally and figuratively, when a family immigrates from a far flung country to the West and have to take on the challenges of adapting to local culture and idioms while maintain their own along the way. Imagine just how much more there is to deal with when that family spans several generations and the move is made amidst a swirl of global strife and social upheaval. Then you’ve got a conundrum of intense magnitude. How does the family navigate challenges unlike any it’s ever seen, economically, physically and culturally and stay a family? Such is the challenge depicted in Layalina, an extraordinary new play about how multi-generational families fall apart—and ultimately find each other again—amidst turbulent global and social change. 

Written by playwright Martin Yousif Zebari, Layalina is the first world premiere production produced by Goodman Theatre that is written by a SWANA (South West Asian and North African) playwright. Based in Los Angeles, Zebari is an Iraqi-born, Assyrian-American actor and playwright with stage credits that span Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s heavily lauded Mary Stuart to Atlantic Theatre Company’s For the Right Reasons to Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s A Christmas Carol and Goodman’s own The Winter’s Tale

As playwright, Zebari first received two workshops and staged readings for Layalina as part of Goodman’s Future Labs and National Queer Theatre’s Criminal Queerness Festival, spawning a host of critical support for the nascent effort, all leading to a highly touted workshop production in Goodman Theatre’s 17th annual New Stages Festival, the theater’s annual celebration of innovative and even risky new work by “some of the country’s most singular ambitious playwrights.” The festival, directed by Jonathan L Green, fleshes out some of the most burgeoning new works on the cusp, every year bringing to light works that end up etching out a deep notch in modern theater cannon.

That auspicious beginning has lead to a spring 2023 world premiere of Layalina in Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre. The production will be directed by Sivan Battat, community organizer and associate director of New York City’s Noor Theatre and community organizer whose specialty focuses on development of works of Middle Eastern playwrights. It features Waseem Alzer (Sahir/Amin); Altra Asdou (Karmi/Layal) and Ali Louis Bourzgui (Young Mazin/Yousif), along with a talented supporting cast sure to give depth and poignance to Zebari’s script.

The story begins in 2003 Baghdad, and newly-wed Layal and her family prepare to immigrate to a Chicago suburb. Fast-forward seventeen years later and Layal’s life looks unimaginably different from what she had envisioned two decades prior, as she and her siblings explore queerness, face their grief and discover what it takes to make home in a new place. 

“This story is inspired broadly by my own family’s journey of immigrating from Baghdad to Skokie,” said playwright Zebari. “I’ve always been in awe of the ways in which displacement followed by assimilation has shaped my family’s future. Their need to simultaneously fit in and stand out. I’ve weaved in real events, exaggerated truths and fictional resolutions to show not what my own family is like but what any family can look like.”

Working from a foundation of personal family stories and experience Zebari gives us a canvas on which to place our own experiences and shares an opportunity for audiences to connect to a story we might not otherwise think our own. Director Sivan Battat will bring her wealth of story-telling experience to bear when she joins forces with Zebari to unwind Layalina before Goodman audiences.