October 21, 2005
By Jack Helbig
The subject of the immigrant experience comes naturally to Seattle-based playwright, Yussef El Guindi, author of "Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith," currently at the Silk Road Theater Project in the city.
El Guindi was born in Cairo, raised in London, went to college in Egypt and then Pittsburgh, and taught for a while at Duke University, before settling in the Pacific Northwest.
"The voices in the play are voices I've heard all my life," he said. "I’d always wanted to write a play that dealt with the Muslim (as well as Arab) immigrant experience in this country. Ten Acrobats was my stab at that."
But the same immigrant community he worked so hard to capture on stage almost kept his play from coming to the light of day.
"Ten Acrobats" was originally commissioned by the Cornerstone Theater in Los Angeles, as part of a faith based cycle of plays.
"This was to be their Muslim play," El Guindi said. "They asked me to come to L.A., speak with people in the Muslim community, then to go off and write the play."
The result is "Ten Acrobats," a portrait of an Egyptian immigrant family struggling to find their place within American society. Everyone seemed happy with El Guindi's work, el Guindi said—the theater, the writers, and "individual members in the Muslim community." But then, in a post-play discussion, after a workshop production, an issue came up that made the Cornerstone Theater wonder about the wisdom of producing the play.
"The issue of the gay son came up—and wouldn't go away," El Guindi said. "This play is only in part about the journey of this particular character. But undue attention was focused on him. Cornerstone is geared to create plays with the communities they engage. But because of the responses they got that day, and subsequent days, they asked for changes so as not to offend or alienate. But because I felt those changes couldn’t be made without seriously affecting the character of the play, I declined, and they passed on the play."
So El Guindi put his play in a drawer and went on to other projects. It might not have been produced had it not been for Jamil Khoury, artistic director of the Silk Road Theatre Project.
Silk Road specializes in plays that explore the experience of Middle Eastern and Asian peoples.
Khoury found out about the play because he and el Guindi belong to the same listserve, devoted to Arab drama.
"Upon first reading 'Ten Acrobats,' I knew instinctively that Silk Road had to produce it," says Khoury. "We're constantly hearing demands that 'Muslims need to reform their faith,' 'Islam needs a reformation,' and 'Arabs need to liberalize their culture.' These demands are couched in this assumption that Muslims and Arabs are averse to self-criticism, incapable of self-introspection. Well, this play demystifies all that. It's a play written by an Arab-Egyptian-Muslim-American playwright that is highly introspective and critical, and yet isn't at all about bashing Muslims and Arabs."