Honey Brown Eyes
Program notes from Artistic Director, Ari Roth
Honey Brown Eyes is a spectacularly written new play that’s at once an unlikely, but also inevitable choice for our theater. Unlikely because we’ve never been to the Balkans before as a company; we’ve gone to different parts of Europe to trigger memory of a different genocide. Which is, of course, what also makes this inevitable. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum opened its doors just as war in the Balkans was breaking out in 1992. Speaker after speaker reminded those assembled that it was a collective responsibility, as survivors and their descendents, as bystanders and war veterans, to never succumb to the moral failing of passivity. “When you see a genocide, say something; do something.” We have not eradicated atrocity in our times.
But this play is not about genocide writ large. It’s about war as it plays out in two tiny kitchens on different sides of a tortuous border. It localizes warfare with a tactile specificity and a precision of language that tells something shockingly identifiable, modern and personal about man’s capacity to perpetrate evil. In getting the history of this conflict correct, Stefanie Zadravec’s beautifully researched play shows us a war not between mortal enemies, but between neighbors who used to make play and music together and who now find themselves on the opposite ends of a gun barrel.
The intimacy of this play, and the manner in which characters speak, with an almost casual savagery, helps make this a work about everyone, not merely foreign nationalities. The play presses up against the windowpane of war and just as deftly opens that window, compelling us to enter the room as we witness acts of violence and generosity, horror but also humanity.
This play, brought to us by Jessica Lefkow, a director who knew of our Peace Café and its commitment to Arab-Israeli reckoning and reconciliation, asks us to identify with perpetrator and victim alike, causing us to subvert some standard reflexes in how we assess a character’s moral constitution. War forges character in the smithy of the deliberative moment. In Honey Brown Eyes, characters are forced to make split-second decisions and are then given opportunity to make up for that fait accompli. We are all, in a sense, working to redress the consequences of actions we’ve taken—or resistance we’ve failed to wage—during times of war.
We come to identify with our Muslim sisters and brothers in this play; victims and survivors, resistance fighters and hidden children. “The past in Bosnia is really the present,” a Bosniak friend told us just the other day. “Our nation, unfortunately, still lives in the past because we did not achieve justice.” Meanwhile, a Serbian friend in Belgrade writes, “I can’t ignore the Serbian victims. Serbia and Serbs are guilty, that is for sure, but they suffered as well. Atrocities were done by all three parts, and I just can’t accuse one. That war was so dirty, it is still difficult for me to find any rule, or system, or clear picture. I can’t understand that war.”
This season, more than any other, it’s important to remember how war forges character; both a national identity and a personal politic. This play, as well as our “Ethics and War” reading series at Church Street Theatre, mark our attempts to understand the ravages of war and the humanity that still flickers within the living, breathing souls of all who live through and survive its brutality.
– Ari Roth