March 14, 2008
By Chris Jones
'I'm a big fan of George Bernard Shaw," says Yussef El Guindi. "I love the way he always gave his best arguments to the people with whom he disagreed."
Now you might think that's a surprising admission for an Egyptian-born playwright who writes mostly about the Arab-American experience. Old GBS was many things to many different people. But the bearded Victorian was not known for his interest in persons of Asian, Middle Eastern or Mediterranean backgrounds. Most of Shaw's debates took place in spiffy London drawing rooms -- not anywhere along the old Silk Road.
But it's the Silk Road Theatre Company -- a fast-growing and faster-improving Chicago theater company that specializes in voices you don't hear elsewhere -- that's producing El Guindi's superb new play, "Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat." Gutsy and whip-smart, the play is about the contemporary Arab-American experience and, indeed, the immigrant experience in general. And it is, most assuredly, Shavian.
Why? Well, for starters, El Guindi articulates two sides of a gripping dilemma.
For persons of Arab descent who make America home, one reasonable potential life-choice is to rail against this country's profound ignorance of the nuances of the Middle East and to fight tooth and nail against every mass-media stereotype one encounters. El Guindi has a character like that in his play.
Or, one can take a different tack and channel that anger into one's career. Sure, you might have to play the media at its own stereotypical game, and it might involve some disloyalty to the place you were born, but then the possibility for personal reinvention is a timeless American attraction since before the days of Ellis Island. If you've come all this way, you may as well succeed.
El Guindi also has a character who makes that second choice -- and the pair fight for an Egyptian-American woman who lands in the middle.
It's quite the gripping battle. It's not unlike Shaw's "Major Barbara." You start out thinking that El Guindi's sympathies lie more with the guy who respects his homeland (and you'd be right), but by the end of the play, you smell some politically incorrect and potentially dangerous ambivalence.
And in the theater, that's tremendously exciting.
"I really found that the characters took over my play," El Guindi says.
Enemies is good enough that you wonder why El Guindi is not better known in the American theater. Educated in London, Cairo and Pittsburgh, El Guindi currently lives in Seattle. He taught at Duke University for seven years, but quit to write for a living. "I have a very cheap apartment," he says, "I eat spaghetti and baked beans."
El Guindi isn't totally unknown. His play "Back of the Throat" was produced at Silk Road and both Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco and the Flea Theater in New York. But these are all small companies. Enemies" can stand up against most any new American play. "I often find big theaters are interested in my work," El Guindi says, "but they are concerned the themes are too fraught for their subscribers. 'Would they stay awake?' they ask. Actually, my main aim is to keep audiences amused and entertained. ... I see myself very much in the American tradition of the immigrant playwright. When I became a citizen, I felt like I'd inherited everything. The good and the bad. "