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'Shesh Yak' Explores A Society Torn Apart By The Syrian Civil War

ARUN RATH, HOST:

The rise of ISIS complicated an already horrendous civil war in Syria. The conflict there has been raging five years. Now a Syrian playwright has brought a slice of that war to an off-Broadway stage. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: This small theater is packed for every performance of "Shesh Yak." The title comes from a Syrian expression for the perfect role of the dice in backgammon - 6-1. That allows one player to dominate the other. The drama is a dark portrait of Syria - the heartbreak of home for two refugees who meet in a dingy New York apartment in the early days of the Syrian revolt. Laith Nakli, a British-Syrian actor and writer, says he wrote the play for audiences who only know Syria from the news.

LAITH NAKLI: Like, when you talk to someone right now about Syria, I'm like, oh, man, yeah. Assad, man - he's killing his people. Now it's like, oh, it's ISIS, you know. But they don't know anything else about it, and nobody really cares, I feel like.

AMOS: Nakli cares a lot. His parents still live in Damascus, the Syrian capital.

NAKLI: One time, I remember calling, and I heard bombs in the background. And, you know, my mom's asking me if I got a call-back from my audition. I'm like really? She's - yeah, no, no, don't worry. We're fine, you know. So everyone's like that.

AMOS: You may have seen him in the American TV show "The Blacklist," where he plays the bad Arab. Before acting, he was a champion bodybuilder - a muscle-bound Mr. Syria - more than a decade ago. But now his focus is on his homeland and the long-term damage of this unrelenting war.

NAKLI: In the war - any war - in the end, nobody wins. Syrian people are going to lose. That's what's really sad and upsetting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SHESH YAK")

(APPLAUSE)

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Syrians on the bloodiest day of this five-week-old uprising as security forces gun down groups of 100 protesters across the country...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hola.

AMOS: The play is a thriller. As the Arab Spring kicks off, two men, both with roots in Syria, meet in New York. The casual conversation soon becomes an interrogation, as a brutal past relationship is revealed. It's a slice of life in a police state where everyone is guilty of something. After the performance, audience members stay on for a discussion. Academic Christa Salamandra leads the talks most nights. She's written extensively on the arts in Syria and on politics. She's surprised by the interest.

CHRISTA SALAMANDRA: I am surprised. The mainstream media wants - asks certain kind of questions and goes to certain kinds of people for those answers. And it leaves a sense of what Syria is about totally out of the picture.

AMOS: This picture gives an intimate look at Syrians faced with terrible choices, molded by the same corrosive past - a taboo subject back home.

Could this play be produced in Syria?

NAKLI: Now? I don't think so. I mean, if I made it, you know, take place in Bosnia, (laughter) you know, I think probably, but now? No. No, there's no way.

AMOS: But for audiences in New York, it's a way to take a closer look at a society torn apart by a war and its history. Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

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