MONA MANSOUR grew up in a Southern California suburb, the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant father and American mother from Seattle. Her earliest obsessions included the kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst and the various battles of World War II. Global politics were brought inside when various cousins, uncles and aunties came to live with the family during the Lebanese Civil War. She studied acting as an undergrad, but in her senior year a class in improvisation led her down that path; she then studied at Second City Chicago and was a member of the Groundlings Sunday Company, which gave her a visceral first taste of writing. Her first play was Me and the S.L.A, where she turned a childhood obsession into a solo play about a kidnapped heiress, urban terrorists, and the nature of brainwashing.
Her commitment to theater deepened after a move to New York City in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks. At this point, the Middle Eastern theater community was ascending, fired up by an urgent need to change the narrative around Arabs and Arab-Americans. Into that community Mona began to write into her bicultural existence. This awakened in her a deep desire to create complicated and difficult roles for Middle Eastern performers, who especially then, but still now, often play only cab drivers, imams, bodega owners, and terrorists.
The questions around her own father, who left Lebanon by choice, took her to his village in Southern Lebanon, and an examination of the “villages'' next to it — the camps Mieh-Mieh and Ain El Hilweh, where thousands of Palestinians live in stasis, stuck in place since 1948. This notion of displacement became a central theme she began to explore and inspired her to create the play Urge for Going in what would ultimately be The Vagrant Trilogy.
Urge for Going garnered her a spot in the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group in 2009.
Urge for Going had productions at the Public Theater (dir. Hal Brooks) and Golden Thread (dir. Evren Odcikin). The next piece in the trilogy, The Vagrant, was commissioned and developed by The Public as part of the Gail Merrifield Papp Fellowship and workshopped at the 2013 Sundance Theater Institute. The Hour of Feeling (dir. Wing-Davey) premiered at the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville, and an Arabic translation was presented at NYU Abu Dhabi, as part of its Arab Voices Festival in 2016.
This work received a finishing commission from the Public Theater in 2017 and the entirety of The Vagrant Trilogy made its premiere at the Mosaic Theater in Washington, D.C. in June 2018, (dir. Wing-Davey.)
In April 2022, The Vagrant Trilogy finally made its New York City debut at The Public Theater, directed by Wing-Davey; the production was in technical rehearsals in March 2020 and had been postponed due to the Covid-19 shutdown. The New York Times wrote, “Woven of poetry and politics, threaded with comedy, it’s Stoppardian in its intellectualism and doesn’t shy from poignancy.”
Her play Unseen played at Mosaic Theater in Washington DC in April 2023, directed by Johanna Gruenhut. Of the production, The Washington Post said, “Unseen gracefully turns its lens on stirring themes: human connection and betrayal, cross-cultural friction and understanding, and the cost of seeing suffering — and of looking away from it.” Prior to that, the play made its West Coast debut at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in spring of 2022, directed by Odcikin. The Ashland News hailed it as “thought-provoking, challenging and complex. Those attributes alone make ‘unseen’ worth seeing, but it’s all that and more.”
In 2019, Mona formed the theater company SOCIETY, with Scott Illingworth and Tim Nicolai. The aim was to create a company where work could be created, joint stock style, with improvisation, research, and discussion that involves every company member. Their first production, Beginning Days of True Jubilation, was performed entirely on Zoom in August 2020. The play, with its cast of 10, explores the absurdity, chaos and psychic cost of a fictitious start-up. The play was remounted in person in July 2022 at the New Ohio Theatre.
Mona’s other credits include: The Way West at Labyrinth (dir. Mimi O’Donnell); Village Theater (dir. Christina Myatt); Steppenwolf (dir. Amy Morton); and Marin Theatre Company (dir. Hayley Finn) We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War premiered at SF’s Golden Thread in 2018 (dir. Odcikin).
With Tala Manassah she wrote Falling Down the Stairs, an EST/Sloan commission. Their play Dressing is part of Facing Our Truths: Short Plays about Trayvon, Race and Privilege, commissioned by the New Black Festival.
In September 2020, Mona received the prestigious Kesselring Prize, awarded by the National Arts Club to one playwright a year. She was nominated by Seattle Rep for her play The Hour of Feeling. Other awards and fellowships include: Award in Literature (Academy of Arts and Letters); Helen Merrill; Whiting, Middle East America Playwright, MacDowell, and New Dramatists Class of 2020.
Mona was a writer for NBC’s long-running series New Amsterdam and is currently creating a TV series for Waleed and Joana Zuaiter’s FlipNarrative.
PHOTO by Leyla Sharabi