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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.

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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.

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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.

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