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A Personal Reflection on Modern Marriage and Motherhood in USD Grad's Play ‘Noura'

"I thought that, really, what the theater needed was a meditation on what modern marriage and motherhood actually is," Playwright Heather Raffo told NBC 7.

Playwright Heather Raffo was running theater workshops in Queens, New York, for Middle Eastern women when the idea for her acclaimed play "Noura" came to her. 

The class was reading Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House." The women - many of them balancing a individualistic and rigid American culture with their own cultural backgrounds and community - started to imagine what happened after the play ended. 

"It was really more about, once you've made a decision to leave everything behind, then what?" Raffo, an Old Globe/USD Shiley M.F.A. Program graduate, said. "It's sort of the thing that 'A Doll's House' leaves us with. She walks out, by then, how does she get on with pursuing her life?"

"All these women were in the midst of that," Raffo said. 

At the same time, the playwright said, she was living in Brooklyn, raising her kids and trying to balance work and motherhood. 

That's when it hit her. 

"I thought that, really, what the theater needed was a meditation on what modern marriage and motherhood actually is," Raffo said. 

So often in theater, she said, older plays and musicals will get revived and put on again. But not all those pieces necessarily apply to present day life. 

"There's a specificity to setting something in modern times and how it speaks to women in 2019," she said. 

"Noura," loosely inspired by Ibsen's "A Doll's House," tell the story of Noura and her husband, Chaldean Christian refugees from Iraq, and a long-anticipated visit of an orphan girl they once sponsored. 

The play is not Raffo's life, but it draws on deeply personal themes for the playwright, she said, like her life as an Iraqi-American.

"The real engine at work in the life of the main character are things that I have felt," Raffo explained. 

The play premiered in Washington, D.C. last year, then went to Abu Dhabi, then New York City, and now, it's in San Diego with a brand-new production. All throughout the play's journey, Raffo has played the role of the main character, Noura/Nora.

Up until the Old Globe production. This time, she's stepping back to look at the play with fresh eyes. 

Watching her work come alive in front of her from a different perspective thrills her, Raffo said. In this production, the small cast includes three different Iraqi-American actors. 

"What's beautiful about that is that I'm no longer the person that's holding the only Iraqi point of view in this piece," Raffo said. 

Though the story tells the story of an Iraqi refugees, Raffo said, she doesn't want people to see this as a story unique to this culture alone.

"If somebody were to walk out of this play and say, 'oh I really feel sorry for the refugee family,' then I would feel sad about that," Raffo said. "That's not what the play has come to do."

"They don't want your sympathy. We're not trying to re-victimize a victim," Raffo continued. "There is no victim on stage. It's people in pursuit of questions that we're all in pursuit of, and I hope that. . .we ask the same questions of our own life."

"Noura" looks at how we as humans are living, Raffo said, and how we balance the pursuit of self with the pursuit of the collective community. 

There's a scene in the play that captures this perfectly, the playwright said.

Noura and her family are talking with a close family friend about the Iraqi people and their religious identity versus the Iraqi identity. One of the characters mourns the loss of the times when the community used to come together as one more often. 

It's a heated conversation in the play. But, Raffo said, it's a conversation happening all over America. 

"The conversation is, are we all really together in this, or are we isolated community pockets with individualistic identities," Raffo said. 

It's more than a question of individualism versus capitalism, she explained, and it's more than a conversation from the polar opposites of the spectrum. 

"I get that you could take those [points] at the polar extremes, and one should, but I'm really more in the middle ground in saying, the health of a human being, the health of a mother, is not that she just gives and gives and gives to her family only, without being healthy herself," Raffo said. "I think that's true of everybody." 

"Noura" runs at The Old Globe from Sept. 20 to Oct. 20. For tickets, click here.

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