Memories of his childhood in war-torn Baghdad, and later starting as an immigrant fourth-grader in Skokie, had been running through Martin Yousif Zebari’s mind for years, but it wasn’t until the pandemic paused the actor’s stage career that Zebari had free time to shape those thoughts into a play.
The result, “Layalina,” running at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre through April 2, taps into Zebari’s memories of being a young child in an Assyrian family in Iraq and Syria and then living in Skokie’s thriving Assyrian-American community. It also continues the love of theater he honed at Lincoln Junior High and Niles North High School, where he acted in shows and tried his hand at set building and costume design.
The first act of “Layalina” shows how the close-knit Ibrahim family lived in Baghdad, celebrating family joys but enduring the stresses of protests and war, and then making the difficult decision to send the children off to safety in a place they knew only the name of—Skokie, Illinois. Act 2 shows the same family years later, when the children who were kindergarten age in Act 1 are wrestling with challenges of young adulthood, and some are finding their LGBTQ identities to various degrees.
Zebari, who uses they and he pronouns, said that while writing the play, he worked with the fact that his memories of Iraq were from a young child’s perspective.
“I lived in the Middle East until age 9, so many of my memories are more environmental and atmospheric than they are direct memories,” said Zebari, who was born in 1993 and said their family lived in Baghdad until they were six, then they moved to Syria for three years before coming to the United States.
“The play is loosely based on my family’s story of immigration, but it’s definitely not autobiographical,” Zebari said. “It’s based on memories I have and conversations I grew up listening to and relationship dynamics I witnessed, so while not everything is true to my family, it all comes from a firsthand experience of growing up in a torn childhood, because of immigration.”
Even as a young child, Zebari felt the danger in Iraq, and got the sense that their family was wrestling with wanting to stay in the place where their ancestors were born versus leaving to keep their children safe.
The family finally left the summer after Zebari completed third grade, and in the fall, he started fourth grade at Thomas Edison Elementary School. He’s grown up speaking Assyrian, then learned Arabic to go to school in Syria, then had to learn yet another language once he arrived here.
Zebari came with his parents and three siblings, because two older brothers had already grown and gone out on their own. The family of six lived in a two-bedroom apartment.
“My dad was a successful business person and had some big deal degrees,” Zebari said. “My family was doing really well financially but then when you have to change your life…sometimes the money goes with it. We moved here and became a working class family.
“That’s another thing the play touches on is–what do you have left, what do you rely on when you don’t have the wealth and status you once had? How does that affect your new home and way you view the world?”
Zebari’s main responsibility at that age, of course, was to go to school. He remembers taking theater classes for his entire time at Niles North and participating in seven to nine shows a year there before going to Illinois State University and majoring in acting and costume design, then working as an actor.
Zebari has lived in several Chicago neighborhoods and moved to Los Angeles about a year ago, but is staying here through the run of “Layalina.”
Thinking back on his time in Skokie, the village’s cultural, religious, ethnic and racial diversity stands out for him. Most of his friends were Jewish, he said, and he remembers going to shabbat dinners and hanging out with their families.
“Because (Skokie) was my first experience in America, I grew up with a spoiled sense of diversity because i thought the rest of the world was that way,” Zebari said. “Then I learned other areas of the city were extremely segregated.
“I had a really beautiful rich childhood in America. I got to experience the country in a way most people don’t.”
If you go: Layalina, at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, Illinois. https://www.goodmantheatre.org/