(To learn more about Marcy Arlin’s Artist, Immigrant blog series, click here.)
Yussef and I just worked together on a reading of his sweet and moving play, PILGRIM MUSA AND SHERI IN THE NEW WORLD, at Queens Theatre in the Park. Strangely this is the first time we met in person, as ITP presented a play of his at the Tenement Theatre around 2000 or so. But I hear of him, at Golden Thread in SF, in Seattle. Yussef has thought long and hard about love, particularly inter-ethnic love, and busting stereotypes, and he knows quite a few things about the thin border between comedy and tragedy.
1) What do you love about theatre in the U.S. for yourself and in general?
Given the diverse population, I much enjoy the diversity of plays out there. You often have to search out some of the smaller theaters to find them, but they’re out there. And hopefully some of the bigger regional theaters will take note of these new voices – a very large wave of new voices that are coming up. Writers who are weaving in new threads to this very large tapestry we’re all a part of. I hope these voices will achieve more prominence and really begin to influence the wider mainstream culture.
2) What do you miss about working in your homeland?
I left Egypt when I was three. While I return every year for family visits, I return somewhat as an outsider, or “khawaga”, as we say in Egypt. I’ve been in the States almost thirty years now and regard this as home. Even more so since becoming a citizen back in the nineties. I also found my writer’s voice here. Indeed, I believe the act of becoming a citizen honed that voice. It helped articulate something that had been percolating for some time: that I was indeed an immigrant and was now part of an even larger immigrant story. The American immigrant story. Where my migration experiences had been too vague to grasp, becoming a citizen helped focus them. It helped place me in a tradition I could draw on.
3) How do you see yourself/identify yourself as an artist in terms of being an immigrant? Does it matter to you?
My immigrant experience informs my work. Even when I’m not directly writing about immigrants, that experience of leaving something familiar, and then trying to acclimatize to a radically different environment, naturally affects my choice of subjects and characters. The question of “home” comes up a lot. Either my characters are trying to get to it, are excluded from it, have cast themselves far away from it, or are simply trying to define it.
4) How does it affect your getting work? (accent, ethnicity, etc.)
Theater is a tough market, period. For everyone. We all have to deal with one obstacle or another. I sometimes think my particular bailiwick, exploring the immigrant experience through an Arab and Muslim perspective (not exclusively, but for the most part), is seen as being just outside the cultural norm/ pale. Perhaps a little too foreign for the mainstream. Or too much in the headlines – too fraught and loaded with negative baggage – to be viewed as entertainment. (My first directive to myself as an entertainer is to be entertaining!) I think this is slowly changing. More plays dealing with Arab/ Muslims/ the Middle East are slowly filtering onto American stages. But I think it may take a second for a comfort level to be reached for all involved.
5) What are you doing now? Here and/or abroad?
My play LANGUAGE ROOMS, which was recently performed at the Thick House in San Francisco in a co-production by the Asian American Theatre Company and Golden Thread Productions, will hopefully be moving to LATC in June. I’m also one of two adapters helping to bring the Indian epic THE RAMAYANA to ACT in Seattle this October. And finally I’m working on a “Middle East America” commission (run by the Lark, Golden Thread Productions and Silk Road Rising) called THE MUMMY AND THE REVOLUTION.
6) Can you tell me a theatre short story/anecdote about when you first came here.
My very first time in the States, I arrived to audition for acting schools. I’d arrived a few hours too late for the auditions held in NYC. So I had to fly to Chicago and audition there. I had never been to the States before. Lots of floundering, amazement, nervousness, and having to figure out how to move about the country. (I still remember that cab ride upon first entering Manhattan.)…Well, I’d applied to six acting schools, and (since I loved literature) one playwriting school. Apparently I didn’t impress any of the acting departments on that first trip, because all six acting schools rejected me! It was Carnegie Mellon and their playwriting program that accepted me. And thank God they did, because I’m completely off acting now. (Even though I ended up doing some acting at Carnegie Mellon.)…Or maybe my excuse is I was too jet-lagged to turn in good performances at my auditions….As the expression goes, “I hit the ground running”.
Yussef El Guindi’s most recent productions include Pilgrims Musa and Shei in the New World (Gregory Award 2011; Seattle Timesʼ “Footlight Award” for Best World Premiere Play; nominated for the American Theater Critics Associationʼs Steinberg/New Play Award.) at ACT, and Language Rooms (Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, as well as ACT’s New Play Award), co-produced by Asian American Theater Company and Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco; as well as at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Other productions: Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes (Golden Thread Productions/ InterAct Theater/ Kitchen Dog Theater/ Theater Schmeater, and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater). His play Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat was produced by Silk Road Theater Project and won the M. Elizabeth Osborn award. His plays, Back of the Throat, as well as Such a Beautiful Voice is Sayeda’s and Karima’s City, have been published by Dramatists Play Service. The latter one-acts have also been included in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT PLAYS: 2004-2005, published by Applause Books in 2008. His play Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, is included in SALAAM/PEACE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MIDDLE-EASTERN AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHTS, published by TCG, 2009. Yussef recently won the 2010 Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award. He holds an MFA from Carnegie-Mellon University and was playwright-in-residence at Duke University.
Marcy Arlin is a freelance director and Artistic Director of the OBIE-winning Immigrants’ Theatre Project. A member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Theatre without Borders, League of Professional Theatre Women, No Passport, and Fulbright Scholar to Romania and the Czech Republic. She recently directed The Farnsworth Invention for Oddfellows Playhouse in Connecticut. Current projects are the readings series Eastern European Playwrights: Women Write the New; and East/West/East: Vietnam Immigrants Out of War, a binational, trilingual (Vietnamese, Czech, English) theatre project based on interviews with American and Czech Vietnamese, in collaboration with Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, VA, and Divadlo Feste, in Brno, Czech Republic. Directing venues include: 59E59, QTIP, LaMama, Vineyard, Oddfellows, Artheatre/Koln, Nat’l Theatre of Romania/Cluf. Created Journey Theatre, working with survivors of war and torture. Co-Editor Czech Plays: 7 New Works. Lecturer in theatre at CUNY; taught workshops on community-based theatre at Yale, University of Chicago, Brown, and NYU.