Arab Americans take the stage / by R. Sheth

January 30, 2008
By Sara Burrows
Staff Writer

Two playwrights, two plays, two theaters. The sum is not six, but one: a celebration of Arab-American drama in Chicago that will last through the spring.

“Arab American writers are severely underrepresented on American stages,” says Jason Loewith, artistic director of Evanston’s Next Theatre, and a number of events are aimed at remedying that.

The Loop-based Silk Road Theatre Project is premiering the newest work by Yussef El Guindi this month. “Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat,” is a look at the Arab American community’s struggle to develop its identity in the face of pop culture stereotypes and prejudices, as well as the issues of love and lust within the community that’s laced with El Guindi’s sharp, dark humor.

“This is the third play — the second world premiere of his that we’ve staged,” says Jamil Khoury, artistic director and co-founder of Silk Road.

Then in May, Next brings “9 Parts of Desire,” an internationally acclaimed work, performed and written by Heather Raffo, to the Museum of Contemporary Art. “For those who’ve never encountered Arab Americans, it’s a revealing work, full of incredibly compelling portraits of diverse women,” says Loewith. And beyond its social implications, “her writing is so poetic, so beautiful that it’s just a great piece of literature.”

Theater talks

Both plays will be preceded by panel discussions between these two top Arab American playwrights. The writers will discuss “the challenges of being Arab-American playwrights and writing for two cultures, the representation of Arab-Americans in popular culture, and the slow-but-steady development of the Arab American arts community that’s happening in this country,” says Khoury.

The second panel will feature playwright Betty Shamieh, as well as Raffo and El Guindi. “That will bring the three premier Arab American playwrights together one stage,” says Loewith.

Both Loewith and Khoury believe that their collaboration is a step in a process that began with the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.

Khoury, a Syrian American raised in Chicago, sees, “with perfect 20/20 hindsight, that Sept. 11 created a cultural opportunity. Though there undeniably was a backlash against Arab Americans, another part of the American public seemed to develop a desire for more information about that community.”

He sees theater as a way to debunk the pop culture stereotypes of Arabs as say, the mysterious, sexy harem girl or ski-masked terrorist. “Arab Americans look at themselves on film and TV, for instance, and feel they’ve been marginalized, exoti-cized and somehow other-ized. We want people getting tuned into art that allows them to connect with each other on a human level.”

Theater, he believes is a powerful tool for achieving this. “Stories are the greatest way I know to enter into a world that’s not your own, and theater is stories.”

Just folks

The plays and panels are also part of Silk Road’s outreach to local Arab Americans. “They don’t see themselves on Chicago stages and they assume that theater is not for them,” Khoury says. “Writers like Yussef and Heather Raffo are showing Arabs and Arab Americans as people with complex lives and challenges.”

He also notes that the concept of theater so familiar to Americans and Western Europeans is quite new to Arab Americans. “Traditionally, their foremost artists have been poets and musicians,” he explains. So would-be Arab American theater artists really have no role models in their history to look to.

This collaboration, however, may pave the way to a greater Arab American presence on Chicago stages. “There’s an audience for this theater, but it’s a matter of building up the small community of Arab American artists and writers,” says Khoury. “I expect that in the next five years we’ll be hearing more and more from that community.”

‘OUR ENEMIES: LIVELY SCENES OF LOVE AND COMBAT’

Silk Road Theatre Project, Pierce Hall, Historic Chicago Temple, 77 West Washington St., Chicago. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, Feb. 21- March 30. $28-$32. ($50 package for both plays.)

“In Conversation: Heather Raffo and Yussef El Guindi”

2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2. Discussion free, but reservations requested

‘9 PARTS OF DESIRE’

Panel discussion with Heather Raffo, Yussef El Guindi and Betty Shamieh.