In the Book Of has an important and politically relevant message about tolerance of those who seek refuge on our shores. Naomi is a war widow who was honorably discharged from Afghanistan after three young men were killed under her leadership. She returns home to Mississippi with her Afghani translator, Anisah, who also lost her husband and who helped her deal with her loss while they served together on the battlefield. Anisah’s life is in jeopardy for aiding the U.S. military, so Naomi decides to bring her back home with her to her small Southern town. Meanwhile, her sister-in-law, Gail, is a Sarah Palin-esque budding politician who builds her candidacy on the idea of “sweeping” illegal immigrants out of their community.The premise of sisters-in-law from very different backgrounds (Naomi is an African-American woman who hails from Chicago, and Gail is a true blue Southern belle) trying to find common ground is rich with possibilities. For some reason, none of the characters ever addresses the fact that Gail loves Naomi as she would her own sister but immediately rejects Anisah, who has taken such good care of Naomi in her time of need, merely because she is a Muslim Afghani. Gail’s ultimate redemption seems so inevitable that is hard to buy the tension between the two.
Another intriguing aspect of the play is the budding friendship between Anisah and Gail’s handsome son Bo, Jr., who Naomi calls “damaged” because of a family tragedy that took place when he was a younger man with a bright future. Bo, Jr. gives Anisah a landscaping job with his company. Despite the protective shield he has put up around himself, he begins to lighten from spending time with Anisah. Anisah views every new experience in his hometown with a childlike exuberance, and he is able to reminisce with her about his childhood spitting watermelon seeds and catching fireflies before things went so terribly wrong for him and his family. Perhaps the most charming character is Bo, Sr., who has his own prejudices primarily by proxy for Gail, on whom he willingly dotes; but he wants what is best for his family.
The acting is solid with the most subtle and believable performances coming from the Bos (Graham Stuart Allen as Bo, Jr. and Andy Prosky as Bo, Sr.), and one can get swept away in the love story between Bo, Jr. and Anisah. However, subtlety is not a strong suit of the production. A broom motif figures in nearly every scene, with “sweep her in, sweep them out” as Gail’s campaign theme and characters “jumping the broom” to get married, and the multitude of brooms undercuts the universal message of the power of love to conquer even the most hardened prejudices.
Florida Studio Theatre excels at plays about social justice, such as this season’s tremendous Best of Enemies, last season’s winning Jericho and even earlier productions such as Ruined and Black Pearl Sings. Although In the Book Of deals with the timely issue of immigration policy and our foreign wars, it doesn’t tread new ground. No matter: FST will soon be bringing down the house again. I eagerly await announcements for their upcoming summer season!