Lebanese performer brings personal, intimate show to campus

The poster for Maya Zbib’s Music Box performance seemed ambiguous to me. Was this a work of music, theater or both? The truth is that Music Box is none of these. Music Box is what Zbib describes as “an experience.” Each audience and every performance is always different, and I can assure you that Music Box is most definitely an experience from the moment you walk into the room.

Zbib is a traveling performing artist from Lebanon who has seen her work recognized across many countries for its uniqueness. In praise of her work as a performer, Zbib received a grant from the British Council that allowed her to represent Lebanon in the Cultural Leadership International Program. The program’s aim is to engage the new generation of cultural leaders to form strategies that aim to solve or improve global cultural issues. In Music Box, it is clear why her work has helped her gain recognition as a leader in her field.

Last Saturday night, as the clock struck 8 p.m., the audience was allowed into Currier Ballroom.  We walked into a homey setting furnished with intimate seating arrangements and pillows on the floor. An old Lebanese music recording played on repeat from a small contraption that Zbib held in her purse. When everyone was seated and settled, she began with a monologue “about a woman and a house.” In fact, the monologue, and the performance as a whole, was about many women, about their stories and particularly about their homes.

Zbib made the performance thoroughly sensory; she incorporated various music and audio tracks and shared tea and small treats with members of the audience, as ambient, comfortable lighting from small lamps and the smells of spices or fragrances that corresponded to particular stories washed over us. As the performance came to a close, the audience was invited to walk up to the set and look at the small box installations, with each box representing stories about a specific home or family. One box held remnants of a home that was bombed during the Lebanese civil war, and various items that were recovered from the rubble. Another contained a letter that was pieced together, attached to a small old photograph of a family. Certain boxes had unique smells and color patterns, but each box was made and decorated deliberately.

In a question and answer session that followed the performance, Zbib spoke about how she developed the script. Stories came from her family, her childhood, interviews with people whose homes she was familiar with, and some she created or changed to work with the narrative. The performance highlighted women’s emotional connection to the spaces they live in: There was a surprising attachment to the “house” having mostly to do with history, childhood experience, loss, birth, death, love and family. Zbib drew on examples of how a home or living space can often make its inhabitants relive past experiences, and can invoke emotions or memories that they may want to forget. Sometimes, homes were described in ways that were confining, oppressive and lonely.

One man in the audience asked what Music Box was like when performed before a Lebanese audience. “My drama is not just about Lebanon,” Zbib said in response. “It is also about a lot of women that are not Lebanese that I met in other countries. I don’t feel like Music Box is something from Lebanon. I treat the performance like an experience; each audience is different and reacts differently … The story can go on forever. It’s not a closed story.” Another woman asked if there was a parallel between women’s bodies and their homes. In answering, Zbib spoke to the idea that the space one lives in is a gateway into the person inhabiting it. She said that depending on the size of the house she noticed differences in the way women moved about. She also highlighted the important relationship between the house, body, food and different smells. When asked about why she chose to be interactive with the audience during the performance, Zbib said, “Some of the performance can be narcissistic. I don’t feel like it’s right to not talk to people and share things.”

Music Box puts together a deeply intimate and thoroughly sensory experience. Zbib did an exceptional job of balancing performance with audience engagement. The performance only lasted about 40 minutes, but as engaging as Zbib was, you won’t even want to check your watch.