Nothing much is supposed to happen in a library. Places of quiet refuge, repositories of knowledge and centers of community, libraries are like sanctuaries, their neutrality and inclusiveness approaching the holy.
But in Kareem Fahmy’s play A Distinct Society, the modest library becomes instead a moral and legal limbo, a gray area that forces the characters to interrogate their own roles in enforcing a border that holds people apart.
The play is set in the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a real library straddling the U.S./Canadian border. One of the five ensemble characters, Peyman, an aging doctor from Iran, stands with one foot on either side of the line and exclaims, “Now the border goes through me!”
“I think in a way the play isn’t so much about the Middle Eastern characters escaping America for Canada,” Fahmy says. “It’s really more about how this library exists as its own space, this liminal space.”
Timely when it was written in 2017, about the Trump-era “Muslim Ban,” the play is even more pertinent now as libraries become battlegrounds amid book banning and outlawing of drag story hours.
Fahmy’s play, directed by Theatreworks Silicon Valley’s director of new material Giovanna Sardelli, explores the border as an idea and libraries as a place where the rubber meets the road in enforcing policies that affect human lives:
A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent says he “doesn’t make the laws, he just enforces them.”
A Quebecois librarian who loves opera tries following the letter of the law, but also decries that she’s “a librarian, not a dog in a fight.”
A beleaguered teen uses the library to escape both school and family, and brings the metaphor of DC’s Green Lantern (an oversimplified battle between good and evil) into the play’s more nuanced conversation surrounding law and morality.
A tired doctor from Iran flies to Canada to meet with his daughter, an exhausted med school student, who drives hours from Boston to see him.
A line on the actual library’s website still reads, in bold italic font, “Family reunions or any cross-border visits are not allowed inside the library.”
“The play ultimately is about how divisive political ideology comes right down to the human level,” Fahmy says.
Sardelli feels most audience members, even absent any understanding of the larger political themes, will connect with the characters as they grapple with the unique dilemmas each character faces as a parent or child.
“I think most people connect to all of them through being a parent,” Sardelli says. “What would you do if you couldn’t get to your daughter?”
The script balances moments of tension with charm and humor. Sardelli says the key to finding levity while tackling serious subject matter is to approach each moment between characters with heart and honesty.
Fahmy says the play synthesizes complex ideas about nationalism and the corruption of the soul through political ideation. The Trump era, he adds, brought racism and xenophobia bubbling to the surface. Though they had been ever-present both in Quebec, where the playwright grew up, and in America, they quickly became more apparent after 2016.
“The Muslim ban is a perfect example of that,” Fahmy says.
Both he and Sardelli say that A Distinct Society aims to provoke thought more than become a morality tale, but Sardelli notes there is a lesson in the collision of the five characters’ lives.
“It’s a play about very good, decent people trying to function in something that is now corrupted,” she says. “And the lesson of the play is that a corrupt policy, a corrupt system, will ultimately corrupt.”
The questions posed by the play are also extremely relevant in Santa Clara County, a sanctuary city home to thousands of families, documented and undocumented immigrants and descendants of many cultures.
Thought-provoking and disarmingly sincere, A Distinct Society doesn’t provide a blueprint toward policy solutions. Instead, it focuses on the human cost of enforcing borders, what happens when policy and bureaucracy forget the human element, and what happens when we’re asked to do the same.
Through Apr 30, Various Times, $37+
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto