Hillel Kogan: We Love Arabs
★★★ ½
Through Saturday, June 17
Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham

Perhaps it’s a matter of timing, but it’s hard not to consider Hillel Kogan’s dance-theater farce, We Love Arabs, as something of a step backward in the region’s performing-arts conversation about the presence of Arab people, their cultures, and their concerns. The American Dance Festival presented the work earlier this week at the Cary Theater before tonight and Saturday’s performances in Reynolds Industries Theater. It appears here at the conclusion of Carolina Performing Arts’ probing “Sacred/Secular,” a yearlong exploration of Arab cultures around the world, which included staged readings of Arab playwrights on the Six Days War, problematic gender roles, and artistic representations of the Prophet Mohammed. It also follows PlayMakers Repertory Company’s 2015 production of Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning drama about the ongoing stigma Arab-Americans face due to their heritage.

So Kogan’s 2013 duet adds relatively little to that conversation by simply stating, in fifty-five minutes, that we don’t see and hear Arabs represented on stage. When Kogan’s intentionally fatuous character, a self-centered, liberal Israeli choreographer who clearly doesn’t have the first clue about actual Arab cultures or concerns, strives to create a work about “coexistence and identity,” any concept of actual difference between cultures eludes him. “The theme is identity,” he lectures a hapless Arab dancer (an unassuming Adi Boutrous), “not meaning who is who, but that we’re the same.”

This character’s idea of cultural dialogue is to clog up the uncomfortable silence with an endless series of instructions and explanations, and to plaster—literally, toward the end, with an ethnic food dish—his cultural misconceptions across his own face and that of his unfortunate partner. One of the choreographer’s more odious directives to his dancer is to “give me your identity card in movement.” The clueless bigotry is uncomfortably laughable, and the “dance” that comes out of these labors is ludicrous. Still, there’s a nagging feeling at the end that the cultural conversation has already moved beyond the points made here.