If I saw it on TV then it must be true: Lebanon’s Rabih Mroué comes to town

Rabih Mroué, a Lebanese actor and playwright, was at Seattle’s On the Boards in January, as part of his first tour in the US. He was presenting his one-man performance piece Looking for a missing employee.

I was excited to see the performance. Mroué’s work is familiar to me and being this far away from home, familiarity is appreciated. I had seen his film Je veux voir, (I want to see), with Catherine Deneuve back in 2009. The film, in which Mroué drives the French film star around Southern Lebanon, showing her the destruction resulting from the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, finally made it to the US last summer thanks to local distributor Typecast Releasing.

The On the Boards show, Looking for a missing employee, is an “investigative” play, based on true events. The play uses archival documents to follow the path of a missing Lebanese government employee whose story involves embezzling money, forging stamps, disappearance, and a brutal death. The stage is set with three screens.  The first screen projects a live graphic illustration of the story—created by an artist seated in the audience.  The second gives a bird’s eye view of Mroué’s notebooks, filled with newspaper clippings about the employee’s disappearance.  On the third screen we see Mroué, framed like a news anchor as he addresses us from his seat in the crowd.

The audience's perspective on Looking for a Missing Employee. (photo courtesy of On the Boards)

Mroué is a master archivist. His materials are diligently labeled and grouped together by subject, source, and organized by date. I imagine he has a room filled with these notebooks from floor to ceiling. Yet his fastidiously organized newspaper clippings are pasted into little school notebooks, which makes them look almost childish.

Mroué’s performances often incorporate mixed media; videos, newspaper clippings, screens and drawings.  But at the core of every show is a story.  He is a solo artist sitting at a table, telling us a story that is guided through material evidence. His stories are narratives of personal, collective, and national historical events.

He presents his stories as fact, supported by officially printed materials. Yet, by the time the stories are over, we are not closer to the truth or what really happened than when the story began. This leaves us with inner irritation and conflict because we want to know the truth, to believe that it actually exists—yet we are left with only one realization: that the line between truth and fiction is at best extremely blurry.

Mroué’s performances propose at least one solid fact: that everything we see live on television, listen to on the radio, or read in the newspapers is only a segment, a fraction, a precise and deliberate frame of what is really happening. We are receiving what is given to us. We are not where this news is coming from, we do not truly know what is happening.

This is a haunting thought. We make much of our perceptions of the world, the other, through these outlets. We go to war, demonize, dehumanize, celebrate, condemn, create opinions, beliefs, all based on these frames. Do we ever make a truly educated decision based on anything we see in the news?

Keep an eye on Mroué’s return to Seattle—and be critical of what you perceive as truth.