April 7, 2006
By Jenn Q. Goddu
Two FBI agents visit the home of an Arab-American man named Khalid. Their inquiries quickly turn from friendly to fierce as the tension builds in Yussef El Guindi's new play Back of the Throat, a Silk Road Theatre Project production.
The Arab-American playwright, who also penned Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith (which Silk Road produced last fall), was inspired to write Back of the Throat shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Hearing about people being subjected to impromptu interrogations in their homes or pulled aside for airport screenings had El Guindi thinking about his books or other possessions that could get him in trouble. "What would this apartment say about me?" was a thought game that became the genesis for a new play.
The playwright's fear of what it might be like to be "tagged" and come under government scrutiny translates into Khalid's experience, although El Guindi says the character is more of an Everyman or Every Arab-American or Every Muslim than a surrogate for the playwright.
Khalid ends up caught up in a nightmare scenario of suspicion, something El Guindi likens to falling down Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole. "Once you get caught up in this bureaucratic machinery it's like `good luck' because getting out of it is just going to be hellish," El Guindi said. "There is a Kafkaesque element."
Director Stuart Carden says the play asks hard questions: "How do you recognize evil?" and "How can we ever know another's heart or see into their inner thoughts?" But El Guindi presents two sides of a tricky equation, balancing the country's need to protect itself against future terrorist attacks with the importance of an individual citizen's rights and freedoms.
"There's such a danger of framing this play as something polemical," Carden said. "I think what [El Guindi] does so remarkably is that he opens up areas for deeper questioning. ... He asks us to probe a little more deeply into the balance [between fear and freedom] and truly ask ourselves what are we willing to sacrifice to feel safe?"
Or as Kareem Bandealy, the actor who plays Khalid, put it: "The point is ... that we [shouldn't] accept things without questioning them first."
But the play is not just a forum for talking politics or posing inquiries. It's also a dark comedy. Said El Guindi: "I see humor in most things and there is always a level of absurdity with any bureaucracy. To me, life is dark comedy. It's perplexing, bewildering and funny. Humor has its own wisdom."
The use of humor was one of the things that drew Carden to the project. "[El Guindi's] taking on a very challenging and, at times frightening, subject matter, but at the same time he does so with just a tremendous storyteller's pen," he said. "This story just works."
Maintaining a sense of fairness is key to the playwright and director. "We went to great lengths to make sure that we were representing [both sides] of this question as fully as we could," Carden said. To gain a deeper perspective of the play, the cast and crew met with FBI agents, American Civil Liberties Union lawyers, and members of the local Arab-American community who had been interviewed by government agents.
It's exciting to work on such a timely play, Carden said. "I often feel impotent as a theater artist to actually address and explore contemporary political issues. Plays seem to be two, three years behind the current political landscape typically, just by the nature of the
beast, and to be able to take on a play that is this plugged into the very important dialogue of our day--this question of freedom and fear--is one of the things that I am so grateful for."