By: Paulanne Simmons
December 6, 2021: The Visitor, The Public Theater’s new musical by Kwame Kwei-Armah (book), Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics) and Tom Kitt (music), based on Thomas McCarthy’s 2008 film, has been roundly dismissed by theater critics. Reviewers have found fault with “the clunkiest exposition” or “Tom Kitt’s middling score” or even the direction of a veteran favorite, Daniel Sullivan.
But, in the end, the major problem with the musical is that it has committed the sin of making a white man the central figure in a play about non-white people. Even worse, the man is trying his best to help an undocumented Syrian immigrant, which qualifies him as that anathema to mankind, “the white savior.”
None of this means the musical does not have problems. Ahmad Maksoud (Tarek), Alysha Deslorieux (Zainab), Jacqueline Antaramian (Mouna), and especially David Hyde Pierce, as Walter, a befuddled professor who’s lost his calling and his way, are all fine in their roles. But the songs, despite their strong rhythms and occasionally haunting melodies, are often disappointingly generic. And, for the most part, they are commenting on the action rather than advancing the plot. But nevertheless, The Visitor does a fine job of turning the political into the personal.
The musical may focus on Walter, but the people we feel the most for are those who are caught up in our dysfunctional immigration system. Tarek is a musician who plays the djembe drum. He is arrested when a policeman sees him jump the subway turnstile and assumes he has not paid the fare. His girlfriend, Zainab, is a jewelry designer from Senegal who has learned to trust no one. Mouna, Tarek’s mother, is desperate to keep her son out of ICE’s grip but finds out there are times when even a mother’s love is powerless. The Visitor makes it clear these are good people who deserve to remain in the country they want to make their home.
When Walter discovers the couple in his apartment, he realizes they have no place to go and lets them stay. Soon he grows interested in Tarek’s drumming and becomes Tarek’s pupil. He even joins Tarek in the “Drum Circle,” now becoming guilty of the second great crime of white people, cultural appropriation.
There’s no doubt minorities have been voiceless for far too long in the United States. But insisting that minorities have to be at the center of any story in which they appear and white people can only be brutal policemen or angry, entitled white women can neither rectify past mistakes nor set us on the road to mutual understanding.
The Visitor may not follow theater critics’ agenda. But when did artists become obliged to follow any agenda but their own?
The Visitor: Nov. 4—Dec. 5. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue—Fri 7pm; Sat 1pm & 7pm; Sun 1pm & 7pm. Running time: 90 mins. with no intermission. $90. www.publictheater.org. Photography: Joan Marcus