How To Build A Tea Shack with Sam: Digressing Towards Coherence
Editor’s Note: Sam’s Tea Shack is currently running at the Tank through October 1st, 2017.
I’m not sure how to write a play.
I’m not sure Sam Soghor knows how to act in a play.
Meghan Finn knows how to direct a play. But…
Sam’s Tea Shack, this structure that Sam and I have drawn Meghan into, that I write this to try to draw you into—it’s not a play, but rather a perpetually unfinished investigation into the happy disregard with which linguistic and epicurean continuity dance across national borders. It is a live struggle between tribal attachment and omnivorous humanism processed through Sam’s peculiar genius, charm, and relentless curiosity. It is Sam’s attempt to figure out what the nearness in form of the dumpling to the knish has to do with his ancestry, and what their physical proximity in this city, the only place in the world worthy of his patriotic sentiment, has to do with our collective present. In turn, he’s preoccupied with what it all has to do with the sense of identity he offers his son.
But because he is human, a clown, an existentialist stand-up act, his grasping at history gives way constantly to the sad hilarity of the banal, and Sam spends a lot of time wondering what has gone wrong since the Fall 1995 Hunter High School production of The Little Foxes in which he played Oscar (a lead), and Lin-Manuel Miranda played his son (a minor character).
A long trail of bad decisions? Or maybe just an exponentially more exciting experience of being a teenager in mid-to-late ‘90s Manhattan than Lin-Manuel could have ever dreamed of. That’s one of Sam’s theses. Whether it’s on point or a salve of self-delusion is another of the big questions he is struggling to answer. He might seek your help.
Built haphazardly from chunks of my writing for Sam, digressive trails of Sam’s ever-shifting improvisatory speech, and instigated but unplanned interactions with tea shack patrons (other audience members; you, if so inclined), the Tea Shack is equal parts comedy act, social club, and theatrical experience. Fastened together with an uncertain mortar of tea, whiskey, snacking and song, then prayed over with a Maccabean faith in the demon-god power of New York City to spin associative recursion into coherence, Sam’s Tea Shack might collapse on you, but it might also comfort you the way only a tent on a small mountain on the right warm starry night can.
It is always a temporary structure, a precarious dwelling for the nomadic.
Sam’s Tea Shack, in which Sam or one of you really might say anything, is charged with possibility and danger in ways that theater rarely is.
Think of it as a social club for those of you who find tribe (primarily) through mind and stomach, not dogma or passport or collective attachment to trauma or historical grievance. Yet, it burns obsessively with a need to trace history, to understand the composition of identity.
Imagine dropping acid, wandering uptown instead of going to Hebrew School, and finding a warp zone from 112th and Lex into a snack bar in 14th-century Tashkent, where you encounter your ancient, ancient namesake.
And if you can’t imagine that, if you’re lost, feel left out, but you like A Chorus Line, or know some of the Hebrew liturgy, or have an interest in Buddhism, or eating, or laughing, or human connection, you won’t be an outsider. This is a place for you.
Um, it’s a hospitality event, an ever-shifting associative trip through one of the liveliest and most original minds you will ever encounter, a transportable way station Sam and I began building across the table from each other in a Punjabi teahouse off Roosevelt Ave in the late fall of 2013, shortly after The Downtown Loop at 3LD closed.
Some history – Meghan had ambitiously directed Loop, this play of mine about the tension between a tour guide’s deep love for his city and the drudgery of repeating the same tour of it every day, fusing live performance with impressive technical feats. She imagined a bus as seating and stage with spaces for other scenes and pieces of the city to live beneath it and projections of the passing city surrounding it. But in the end, the most important thing Meghan brought to the play was Sam Soghor as, well, more or less, Sam Soghor.
In the early part of that process we imagined casting Sam as the nameless main character, Tour Guide. But Sam, having himself been a tour guide, having too much respect for telling the absolute unsullied truth about this city he loves, could not (even in play) be the kind of tour guide that the central character of this play is. Sam could not act like the kind of tour guide he would never be. He couldn’t lie to his tourists. He couldn’t be mean to them. Meghan immediately recognized the dramatic potential of this and suggested I try to write a Sam-ish tour guide into the play as foil for the protagonist.
I did. Sam became the Trainee. It worked beautifully. Sam had been in plays of mine before, but this was the first time I wrote directly for him. And the exchanges between Sam and Tour Guide, Sam and vendors, Sam and tourists, became my favorite parts of The Downtown Loop, the parts where I laughed night after night.
When it ended all I wanted to do was to keep wandering and exploring the city with Sam, crushing on the city with Sam, and to not just write for Sam as I did in The Downtown Loop, but to try writing from Sam, to attempt a tracking of his wild digressive mind on the page, to live in the joy of that,.
So we started doing this other thing, Sam and I, in the late fall and early winter of 2013, beginning with that evening in the teahouse. I took Sam to places in central Queens that I imagined were resonant with places in central Asia and Sam took me to look at the Central Asian tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
At some point, around 2005, Robert Sietsema, former Village Voice food critic and hero of my boring ass high school Wednesdays, put the Bukharian restaurants of Forest Hills on my radar. He sent me venturing to places like Cheburechnaya on 63rd Drive, to eat manty and samsa and lagman, a meaty noodle soup, with one long noodle. And despite Sam’s vegetarianism, I really wanted him to know these places.
Because, this is what Silk Road means. This is that Marco Polo shit, I realized. This city, we’ve inherited it. We’re in it. And I didn’t think anybody else besides Sam would care with the fervor that I did.
We’re in 21st-century Queens, birthplace of Nas and Phife Dawg, home to the first Pollo Campero and the first Jollybee in the United States, home to the Bait uz Zafar Mosque, which used to be Temple Israel of Jamaica, which is where I got bar mitzvahed in 1995, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the birthplace of that other shithead orange native son who now jumps on his gold waterbed bed in DC trying to waste the world from one commercial break to the next. And it’s here.
This recognition of Queens as historically significant crossroads might be really basic, but it felt revelatory. Years ago, a Colombian friend referred in Spanish to his first Knish Nosh knish as an Israeli empanada. His conflation of the knish’s Jewishness and Israel annoyed me, but the way he saw himself and his traditions in it, the way it stretched the dense concentration of nation state defying relatedness in this city even further, that delighted me.
Now Cheburechnaya is a few blocks from Knish Nosh and around the corner from what used to be the Dumpling House, which is where I have my first fragmented memories of being 4 or so years old and eating spinach and scraps of other vegetables in a wrapper of noodle, the greatest thing in the world. And maybe there is something spiritual to honor in the closeness of the dumpling, the samsa, and the knish on this few-block stretch around Queens Blvd. and 63rd Drive. Or maybe it’s just coincidence and real estate prices.
But if it took the collapse of the Soviet Union and the mass migration of Uzbek Jews from Tashkent and Bukhara to Rego Park and Forest Hills, if it took my first bite of a samsa to contextualize the samosa in relation to the dumpling and the knish, to see the continuity in taste and naming, it has taken a lot of meals, a lot of tea, and a lot of whiskey with Sam, to begin to think meaningfully about why I care.
Cause if it’s all connected, maybe we can be nice to each other? We want to try.
So this thing we are doing together, Sam talking, me questioning, me provoking, him talking, Meghan listening and thinking and realizing there is a path to discern, well, it’s never over. And that suits us. We are building this thing, Sam’s Tea Shack, and then we’ll take it down. Come visit before that happens.
Shana Tovah. Next year at the Richard Rogers Theater.