Encouraged by Egyptian Firefly Artist Marwa Benhalim (who knows the poet personally), Staley (an environmental activist himself) took the poem and created an intimate performance piece he calls Old Lady Leaf which asks audience members to acknowledge ecological hazards that Pittsburgh & Cairo both share. As the Autumn-focused sun highlighted bright, sculpted shades of leaves framed by crisp air, one could not help but visualize the perspective of this preservation performance.
and the Nile continues its steady passage to the sea
I sit quietly, reflecting…
My city, I tell myself, my beloved city, that old lady
unable to breathe, unable to cleanse herself,
trash blowing under cars, hanging onto fences,
collecting like grimy islets in the majestic river.
As the performance transformed from formalization to a heedful & cherished movement piece, audience members began to hold their breath, afraid to make a sound that might disturb the sacred emergence of Old Lady Leaf. With great care, Staley raised her from beneath an assortment of human and natural debris, like the mix of leaves and Starbucks Coffee cups. Moving with the gentle beat of Munir Bashir's Arabic drums, which echoed off of the garden walls, Staley gracefully slid from caretaker of Old Lady Leaf to playing Old Lady Leaf herself.
The audience, some still holding their breath, watched as the sacred grandmother managed to delicately pull a beautifully blooming flower from her chest. Gesturing a wordless plea, the audience understood. With great regard, She gives her heart; the harvested flower was passed to one of the younger audience members. As Staley morphed gracefully back from puppeteer to Old Lady Leaf’s caregiver, he laid her down to rest in a bed of mulch, mindfully removing cigarette wrappers and fast-food rubbish to build a bed of litter free compost.
With the help of fellow Firefly artist Mark Bellaire on drums, the group dramatically took over the Private Prairie level of the garden using the ever-famous “chair” from Winifred Lutz’s permanent installation. The class shifted gears after Staley’s quiet meditation to a partisan political performance- producing publicly charged speeches taken from various artists, activists and politicians.
With firecracker discharge and the help of Bellaire’s rhythmical beats, the class embodied the entire space with the pride of accomplishment. By using words from political speeches and movements through use of Thuma’s guidance, the performance demanded full focus from the audience.
It is important to note that none of the student performers are theatre majors! The passion which rose out of them was easy to source as Thuma, who visited Egypt during the revolution, introduced the workshop performance.
Reflecting on the hopeful nature of these multicultural speeches/performances, "Alhamdulillah" (or Hallelujah)- a term used to praise god in Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions- comes to mind.