When I arrived in the lobby of the Frear Ensemble Theater fifteen minutes before “Bella Bateekh in: Out of Mind” was set to start, an usher told me to wait; the show hadn’t started yet, and no one could go inside and sit down. Uncommon, sure, but not notably so. I’ve been to a few shows where they let you in at the last minute, and theater is rarely on time. At Swarthmore, especially, I expect a delay of at least a few minutes.
It got peculiar, though, when the ushers suggested that people read the signs posted on the walls and informed the group of people sitting in the lobby that ‘Bella’ wished to greet everyone in her dressing room before the show.
Attendees unfamiliar with the theater spaces in LPAC may not have noticed that the signs on the wall pointed past the Frear dressing room and to the larger dressing room used for shows on the mainstage. The need for a larger space is quickly evident: Bella takes as much amusement from the audience as we do from her.
Bella Bateekh, the show’s one and only character, is played by Raya Tuffaha, and “Bella Bateekh in: Out of Mind” is her senior year Solo Performance project. Tuffaha has several Swarthmore theater productions to her name, including “R3turn: a Palestinian Pop-Punk Musical” in Spring 2022 and “WHY ARE YOU KILLING YOURSELF?” in Spring 2021. Tuffaha spends a lot of time on stage bringing the worlds her fellow students have created to life. In this project, with a character of her own design, all eyes follow Tuffaha. No one is disappointed.
The audience crammed into the corner of the dressing room, mostly standing. Notably, we could see ourselves and each other in the dressing room mirrors. Enter Bella, with her back towards the audience. We saw her face only in the mirror as she sat at the makeup table, a makeup carrier open to her left and bottles of miscellaneous other supplies in front of her. A large pink purse sat on her right. Facing us was a chair covered by a robe and curly hair held back with a bow.
In her dressing room, Bella spoke about a variety of topics. Some were more light-hearted, such as her favorite color (pink, matching her makeup and entire outfit) and her hair. She used those to compliment herself, teasing wanted reactions from the audience. Others held more weight. As a Palestinian woman with dark hair, she argued with the idea that she would be relegated to the brunette sidekick who sings the alto parts in Barbie movies. She talked about her experiences in acting, how an audience watches her for her beauty, why people act, and how she is perceived on stage. Throughout the various topics she mentions, she engages with the audience. Not only does she talk to them, she also picks on them, teases them, and establishes her superiority over them, even while asking for validation. Bella is judgemental, and the audience gets their pleasure in challenging her, even though she comes out on top every time. Tuffaha deserves full credit for her perceptiveness and wit; she never breaks character, even when the audience talks back. It’s also worth noting that Bella doesn’t turn to face the audience when she’s vulnerable; the mirror allows engagement but is also a shield against direct interaction. This creates a brilliant juxtaposition of vulnerability and self-centeredness.
And then we’re led out of Bella’s dressing room by Bella herself. She stopped in the lobby, declared she needed a break, and the audience was left once again sitting in the lobby. But the show wasn’t over, and Bella arrived — again poking at a member of the audience — in the side hallway and led us into the actual theater. The furniture looked like it belonged in an old-fashioned house — wooden tables and chairs with covers of orange and yellow — and Bella’s bold pink clashes with the entire theater. Instead of the show she’d been teasing the entire night, Bella had a back-and-forth with Stage Manager Simon Herz (on Saturday evening, Assistant Production Manager Kat Larson played his role). He wanted her to start the show — that was what was advertised on the posters, after all — and she tried multiple times, settling into position as the lights changed. But the audience never learned what the teased first line of her life-changing show might be because she always had something else to say. Bella instead pushed the furniture away and talked about herself to the audience, her unexpected confidant, pulled into her orbit not by the beauty and glamor that she defines herself with, but by her memory of the theater itself and the experiences that brought her to where she is now.
As much as she complained about acting and what it takes — the reasons people say they want to be actors and the fact that she lost her first kiss to something staged and filmed — we saw the best of Bella in the theater under the stage lights. She was just as alluring when she spoke of her struggles and memories as when she poked fun at the audience or walked across the stage.
Bella offered a little something for everyone watching her, and she managed it all while talking about herself. Whether it was a laugh as she teased members of the audience, or a relatable experience for the actors populating the audience, the performance left the room buzzing once the lights went up for the final time.
“Bella Bateekh in: Out of Mind” may have been Raya Tuffaha’s solo performance project, but on that stage, Bella was not once alone.