By Misha Berson
Behind many an overnight theatrical success stands a veteran playwright who has paid years of dues. Yussef El Guindi can tell you all about that.
The Seattle-based author has spent well over a decade toiling as a struggling dramatist-scoring staged readings and low-profile productions for his eclectic array of topically charged plays (Hostages, Finishing School). He taught playwriting at Duke University for seven years to make ends meet.
Then, in 2004, El Guindi completed a play he had worked on fitfully for several years. A full-length one-act somewhat cryptically titled Back of the Throat, it bristled with the fears and anguish many Arab Americans felt in the wake of the terrorist attacks on American soil. And it turned out to be a surprise underground hit-exactly the right play, in the right place, at the right time.
The chilling, ambiguous tale of an Arab-American writer who is visited by two menacing government agents tracking down suspects after an act of urban terrorism, Back of the Throat plays like a section of the U.S. Patriot Act-as dramatized by David Mamet and Franz Kafka.
It premiered in early 2005 in a Golden Thread Productions/ Thick Description co-production in San Francisco that struck a bundle of raw nerves. Since then it has been staged at Theater Schmeater in Seattle (where it won the top prize in the company's Northwest Playwright Competition) and at Manbites Dog Theatre in Durham, N.C. It's scheduled this month at the Eccentric Theatre of Anchorage, Alaska, in March at New York City's Flea Theatre and in April at Silk Road Theatre Project in Chicago. Other companies in the U.S. and abroad are also interested. And the script earned a nomination for a 2006 American Theatre Critics Association award.
The appreciation is heartening to the genial and modest but intensely focused El Guindi, who views the world from a very cosmopolitan vantage point. Born in Egypt (where his father was a film producer for a time), he was raised mostly in England (his family relocated there for political reasons). He did his university studies in Cairo, Paris and the U.S., and has been a U.S. resident since the early 1980s-albeit one who maintains close ties to the Arab-American cultural community.
El Guindi has yet to reap much financial benefit from the recent flurry of low-budget productions of Back of the Throat-and he could probably use the dough. "To totally focus on my writing, I'm living very frugally on savings," he explains matter-of-factly. "I don't even drive, because I can't afford a car."
Still, the sacrifices seem worth it as he savors the positive attention being paid to several recent scripts in his varied output. El Guindi's comedy-drama Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith was warmly received by Chicago critics in an October-through-December mounting by Silk Road. Two poetically surreal one-acts (bundled under the title Acts of Desire) garnered similar attention in their Los Angeles premiere in November, at the Fountain Theatre.
"Yussef is very versatile and very unpredictable as a writer," suggests Theater Schmeater artistic director Rob West. "No two of his scripts sound alike."
Fountain producing director/dramaturg Simon Levy adds, "I'm attracted to poetic, lyrical material, especially material that makes strong statements about other cultures. And there's no question that in today's world we need to hear from Arab artists, to hear their points of view."
El Guindi seems surprised, however, that it was Back of the Throat that catalyzed his breakthrough to more productions and a broader, more diverse audience. "As I submitted the play to theatres, I thought, oh, my God, I don't like this play," he recalls. "The tone felt very harsh. And when I heard it read on stage for the first time, I noticed how uncomfortable the audience was. I worried that regional theatres wouldn't want to do it because it wasn't a sentimental and uplifting play about 9/11. It has no comfort zone."
In fact, the disruption of his own "comfort zone" in the wake of 9/11 was what triggered this vertiginous, gripping study of Khaled, a writer whose ethnicity and Muslim faith (as well as his books, his library habits and sexual proclivities) are methodically ransacked and demonized by government authorities with their own burning agendas.
By the time the agents weave their guiltby-association case against Khaled, with testimony from an old girlfriend, a local librarian, a stripper and (in an imagined or real encounter) an actual terrorist, his identity has been blurred and stretched beyond recognition.
But it wasn't a stretch to imagine such a thing occurring, says the playwright. An American citizen since 1996, El Guindi recalls that after the World Trade Center attacks, "I suddenly felt alienated, and, on a deep level, unplugged from the society. Suddenly I felt my citizenship was imperilled."
Unlike Khaled, he was never interrogated by FBI agents, "but it was the whole climate, the stories I was hearing that were so scary. Suddenly I was very careful about what books I was bringing onto airplanes. I was thinking, what's in my house? There are books on assassins, on Islam, on Chairman Mao, books by Edward Said, lots of research materials. That was really the genesis of the play. Could what I read really get me into trouble? In America?"
As he expressed in Back of the Throat (the title refers to the correct way to pronounce Khaled's Arab first name), El Guindi was appalled by "the huge, horrendous, hideous attacks of 9/11. And the climate of fear afterward was understandable to me.
"But people don't quite appreciate to what extent civil liberties were undermined in reaction to those events. Habeas corpus was the cornerstone of our legal system, for example. And it's not really in play anymore."
El Guindi was at first so spooked by the post-Patriot Act atmosphere, during which scores of Arab residents of the U.S. were packed off to Guantanamo Bay prison without formal charges or access to legal counsel, that he was "stunned into silence. For a while I could not write." Though he started Back of the Throat in 2001, he set it aside. Soon after, his friend Dina Amin, a literature professor at Georgetown University, introduced him to the whimsical, poignant stories of Egyptian writer Salwa Bakr, which he "fell in love with."
In lieu of creating original work, he adapted two of Bakr's short fictions into the one-acts Such a Beautiful Voice Is Sayeda's and Karima's City, which comprise Acts of Desire. The first is a particularly captivating fable about a housewife, Sayeda, who one day finds she has suddenly been endowed with a beautiful singing voice. Only no one wants to hear it-not her callous husband, nor the doctor Sayeda consults, who is convinced she's gone mad.
"In the short story, the husband is much more abusive than in the play," El Guindi volunteers. "I felt if I made him that bad, everyone would just blame him for her problems, when the story is really bigger than that. It's about facing something new within oneself, having a new mode of expression. And it's about how threatening a new talent or ability can be, how it can change the equilibrium."
Eventually, El Guindi was again ready to concoct his own stories, in his own voice. And in Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, commissioned by the L.A.-based Cornerstone Theater Company, he consciously chose to write "a big old soap opera of a family play. This is my sentimental American drama."
EL GUINDI TOOK SOME HEAT FOR the play from fellow Arab Americans even before Silk Road presented it in Chicago. But the theatre stood by the work. Said company executive director Malik Gillani, "The play allows a non-Muslim audience an inside peek at a Muslim-American family and a chance to see them as real people facing real challenges. They're not angels. They're not demons. What they are is enormously likable."
Elaborates El Guindi, "Because there are so few depictions of Arab-American life in our theatre, people have wanted me to just give a very, very affirmative view of who we are. Some have asked me, why are you depicting a gay person and homophobia? There are so many other issues to deal with. But in order to humanize a people, you need to show them warts and all. Our humanity lives in our cracks and wounds. How can you affirm something, without talking about everything?"
Everything, to this playwright, also meant delving into the murky fears, distrust and repression engendered by America's war against terrorism, which El Guindi finally felt ready to do in 2004 by completing Back of the Throat. Not surprisingly, that piece too has generated some controversy.
"Some Arab Americans have asked me, how could you make Khaled such an ambiguous character?" reports the playwright. "I tell them, the whole point of the play is guilt by association. At the end, Khaled has been stuck with the terrorist label. He's been woven into a narrative he can't get out of."
El Guindi adds with a chuckle, "I guess I did a good job of that, because some people leave the play thinking Khaled really was guilty. And I find myself saying, 'No! He's really innocent'-arguing for my own character, like a lawyer would."
Misha Berson is theatre critic of the Seattle Times.