March 4, 2008
By Chris Jones
At the top of Yussef El Guindi’s new play, we’re taken to a TV studio—it looks a lot like Fox News—where an iconoclastic host is about to interview the Arab-born author of “Jihad 101.” It’s a book that panders to the prejudices of conservative hosts who view all Arab cultures as nothing more than petri dishes for terrorism.
Oh no, I thought. Most plays don’t do either cable news or conservative authors well—the temptations of caricature prove too great. And for about five minutes, it feels like we’re about to get one of those earnest, liberal, grant-friendly and (if all we’re being is honest) deadly boring plays where the American mass media is vilified (like that’s hard) and a misguided character spends two hours discovering the spiritual importance of from whence he came.
El Guindi delivers no such thing. On the contrary, this world premiere of “Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat” reveals an exceedingly smart, sophisticated and compelling exploration of Arab-American identity and the opportunities as well as the perils of assimilation. Not only does El Guindi probe the dilemma of being Arab in a culture with little understanding of the Middle East, he’s also willing to explore the demonstrable personal benefits of leaving the past behind in America.
To its great credit, this play continuously undercuts its own identity. El Guindi stares in the face—his own face—what it means to be an out-front Arab-American writer benefiting from the incendiary mix of fear, curiosity, guilt and self-justification with which the American media approach all things Arab.
Should one do one’s earnest work at serious little Chicago theaters—like, say, the Silk Road Theatre Project?
Or should one give Big Media what they want—personal “beyond the burqa” memoirs starting in escape from a generically repressive Arab culture and ending in an appearance on “Oprah,” wearing designer clothes?
The central character of aspiring author Noor (Monica Lopez) is faced with a similar dilemma here. Smelling a compelling personal story, New York publishers want her far more than her fiction. Meanwhile, two men in Noor’s life (both expertly acted here) represent polarities.
Gamal (Kareem Bandealy) is an angry but mostly ineffectual radical. Mohsen (Andrew Navarro) is a highly successful but dangerous assimilationist. Both get their say. Both fight for Noor’s body and soul.
Although it moves well and features a dazzling little visual design by Lee Keenan and Mike Tutaj, Patrizia Lombardi Acerra’s production isn’t perfect—it sometimes flirts with archetype, there is some weird physicality, and the intensely credible focus achieved by the fine actors in the central love triangle doesn’t fully extend beyond. Toward the end, the play could use a trim, for speechifying dominates.
But if you’re interested in smart new plays, don’t miss this one. It’s the best piece by the hugely talented El Guindi that I’ve seen. And it’s further evidence that Silk Road has real guts behind its genial facade.