Play brings Middle East to Northern

By Leah Kulikowski

“The Near East,” which is NMU’s latest production, brings Middle Eastern culture, lifestyle and religion out of that region and into our backyards.

“The Near East” shows are at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 15 to 18 and Feb. 21 to 25. The production will be located at the James A. Panowski Black Box Theatre in Room 105 McClintock.

“The Near East” won the Quest for Peace prize for its ability to transgress the cultural boundaries between American and Middle Eastern life by presenting characters and struggles that all people can relate to.

“The play is about faith, religion and why we do what we do,” said director of theatre, Ansley Valentine. “It really challenges a lot of our preconceived notions about Islam or people who are Muslim by raising more questions than providing answers. It intentionally leaves things open for you, as the audience member, to consider like, ‘What does that mean?’ or ‘How would I feel if I was in that situation?’”

The play follows Arab feminist and scholar Aisha Ghazali in her quest for the ancient artifact Umm al-Kitab, the “Mother of all Books.”

As a woman, Aisha is unable to lead the archaeological expedition so she hires American-Jewish archaeologist Ken Schneider to head the team and go into the desert. It charts their search for the artifact and their conflicts with each other and the world around them.

Ryan Sitzberger plays Ken Schneider in “The Near East.” He is a senior criminal justice major with a love for theater. Sitzberger waited until college to become involved in theater and acted in several previous plays.

“The play is very gritty and realistic,” Sitzberger said. “We’ve been trying to do our research as best we can and I think it’s pretty well representative of real life. The characters are searching for the truth behind religion and faith. The things that happen to the characters really help them come together under different ideas.”

Sitzberger said he is excited for his leading role in the play. He feels like he connects with Schneider on a personal level.

“The thing that separates this from other plays this year is that ‘The Near East’ really deals with current problems that represent old and new issues,” Sitzberger said. “I think it’s a lot more relatable than anything so far.”

Taylor Kulju, a sophomore theater major, plays Arab scholar Aisha Ghazali in “The Near East.” Kulju has played several roles throughout her time at NMU, including Wendy in “Peter Pan” and a chorus member in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

“Aisha really fights for women and their rights because women are so confined in everything that they do but she does it in a very approachable, knowledgeable way,” Kulju said. “She’s a very smart person, very intelligent.”

Kulju said she agrees with Valentine and Sitzberger that the play is very serious and it helps people understand a different culture and lifestyle, but she believes there is something else at the heart of “The Near East.”

“There’s actually a lot of comedy,” Kulju said. “The relationship between Ken and Aisha is very funny. First they hate each other, then they love each other and then they hate each other again. It’s a really decent play that leads people to more questions than answers, not just about the characters but about the culture they’re in.”

Tickets are $8 for NMU students with an id and $12 for the general public.

For more information about “The Near East,” call the Forest Roberts Theater at (906) 227-2553 or visit