This article is written by Emily DeDakis, a team member of the second partnership between Golden Thread and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. As a ReOrient Publications Dramaturg, Emily spoke with playwrights Lameece Issaq (Noor and Hadi Go to Hogwarts), Rendah Heywood (The Grievance Club), Niku Sharei (In Spenglic), and Mustafa Kaymak (The Basement) about their writing careers and their debuts as ReOrient playwrights.
*EMILY DeDAKIS is a writer and theatre-maker from the southeast U.S., now based in Belfast, N. Ireland. She is a member of LMDA and Dramaturgs’ Network (UK/Ireland). As dramaturg & producer for Accidental Theatre, she has developed dozens of new performances in forms like 24-hour plays, verbatim dance and immersive theatre. Emily’s writing has appeared on BBC TV and radio, and her collaborations with sonic artists include a musical essay, a soundwalk and an immersive audio play.*
ReOrient plays always have something in common: brevity. And every play carves space to hold a challenging story with grace and respect – and often a light touch, sharp wit or dark humor. Meet four writers who are brand-new to the festival (including one who’s new to writing entirely), all clearly at home in ReOrient, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Their stories contain uncomfortable solutions and impossible choices: siblings trapped in the bombing of Aleppo, a woman trying to provide healthcare for her child, a thwarted attempt at catharsis, payback for a mysterious war crime… Golden Thread and ReOrient provide a space for them, both welcoming and provocative, so they can feel confident and vulnerable, corroborated and surprised. This quartet of new writers deliver daring additions for Golden Thread’s festival of deceptively brief and exceptionally brave plays – a fitting celebration of ReOrient’s legacy as a launching pad for Middle Eastern voices.
“Writers do have themes that seem to reemerge. I think first-generation artists feel like they want to speak for their families.”
Issaq is founding artistic director of Noor Theatre in New York City, now in its 10th season (think a younger, East Coast sibling of Golden Thread). Now based in Los Angeles, Issaq still guides the overall artistic direction of Noor while getting back to her roots: performing and writing. Taking a step back from the on-the-ground artistic director hustle is refreshing. Acting-wise, she’s taking on the eponymous character in Heather Raffo’s Noura at San Diego’s Old Globe. She’s dabbling in TV and is drawn toward writing about “being an Arab-American woman in middle age, and what that feels like. There’s a weird kind of mourning that goes unexpressed – that weird bridge that you’re walking from youth to old age – it’s a strange space.”
Also strange, according to Issaq? Growing up in Las Vegas with strict Palestinian parents. Her father is now an octogenarian blackjack dealer who still works the graveyard shift on the strip. And yet, she says, “I grew up a little bit naïve, and that’s probably for the best because that is a place you can really get lost. You can easily walk into a convenience store or 7-11 and start gambling, you can get drugs and alcohol 24/7 – [my parents] did a hell of a job protecting us.”
Left, Lameece Issaq in her play Food and Fadwa, co-created with Jacob Kader as a co-production with Noor Theatre at New York Theatre Workshop in 2012.
Navigating the immigrant experience for Issaq means taking stock: “I always want to figure out what our emotional inheritance is. War and displacement make their way down generations.” Even if you’re not in the thick of conflict, like the young characters Noor and Hadi in her Harry Potter-steeped play, even if you only come from people who experienced this, “things like trauma and survival skills are still in you somewhere,” she says.
Issaq is conscious of how her approach to exploring her background via theatre has changed: “When I first started writing I was eager to go ‘oh, you know, Arabs and Middle Easterners, we have nuance, and this is who we are, and we’re funny,’ and that’s served its time now.” Moving past that apologetic note – no longer feeling the need to make everyone else comfortable before getting real with her truth – sounds like it’s been a relief to Issaq: “I can’t believe I’ve internalized all that – I don’t actually feel like I need to do that anymore. I think we can go into all sorts of hyper-specific storytelling. That’s what’s emerging now, certainly in television.” Her job now, as she sees it, is leaning into uncomfortable spaces. Noor and Hadi Go to Hogwarts is no exception, exploring true dark, true comedy, asking what it looks like to feel punished by God, to feel like you’re imaginary.
Originally commissioned by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, which focuses on disability, Issaq is interested to see it framed as a Middle Eastern play. Like the other writers I spoke to, she’s impressed with Golden Thread’s approach: “It’s a very thoughtful experience. I knew it would be cared for and the right questions would be asked. You know you don’t have to teach anybody anything. You trust that there’s an understanding, that they’re going to dig into it in the right way, and teach me about it.”
Writing about Aleppo meant imagining the horror of a war that is outside her experience and beyond her comprehension: “Anything that has to do with children being hurt or not cared for is something I can’t wrap my head around.” Facing topics like this, Issaq can’t help asking: “Is it okay that I’m writing about this? Is it helping? Is it enough to put our attention on it?” She hopes the performance will give people without much knowledge of Syria’s war a “touchstone. That’s what we always hope with our work in this community.”
At the start of Noor Theatre’s journey, Issaq and her co-founders looked to Silk Road in Chicago and Golden Thread to help them understand the terrain: “It’s not easy to be a very culturally mission-driven company. You’re building up a whole community of artists.” As another artist who has created an important platform for Middle Eastern theatre, Issaq feels incredibly grateful for her ReOrient experience: “It’s such a successful program, really well curated. I’m excited to see how they do it, and to be an ally. We all kind of feed each other.”
“New York has this feeling of ‘you can achieve anything’ and I found it really palpable … so I decided to try writing something.”
Even for the newcomers, all based outside the Bay Area, there’s a sense of reunion about this year’s ReOrient. When she was a newly arrived English-Iraqi actor in New York City, Rendah Heywood quickly discovered Noor Theatre and met Lameece Issaq: “They offered me a home and I will forever be grateful for them.” In addition to Issaq, Heywood felt lucky to encounter a number of Middle Eastern writers like Sevan K. Greene, Mona Mansour, Heather Raffo, and Hannah Khalil, many of whom became friends.
Now based in the UK, she remembers, “I really felt more connected to my Middle Eastern roots in New York than I did in London.” This dedicated scene doesn’t exist in the same way in the UK, Heywood says, – “or I’ve not come across it. The urgency for it in America certainly feels clear. Because it’s so hidden from view and it’s the right time now – these artists in New York feel that, and were actively organizing themselves to counter that.”
The Grievance Club is Heywood’s first and only piece of writing. It marks the one time she has ever “committed to putting pen to paper.” She finished it just in time to submit to the Samuel French short plays festival – and it was chosen for production. Her director at Samuel French, Egyptian artist Kareem Fahmy, suggested she send it to Golden Thread. Heywood was “just dumbfounded” when Torange and the team picked it up for ReOrient too. (“Rendah’s so sweet and so talented – I can’t wait to see what she’s done,” Lameece Issaq told me.)
Rendah Heywood, left, and Carla Langley in Cuddles, a vampire drama by Joseph Wilde at 59E59 Theaters in 2015. // Photo courtesy of Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times
Heywood’s voice (even in the underwatery sound-world of Skype) has a glorious poise and polish, but she’s refreshingly frank about her green lack of ease as a playwright: “I don’t really know who I am as I writer at all. I wanted to see if I could do it. I found it such difficult work – everything you write you immediately hate when you read it. I’m not even sure I’d ever do it again,” she admits, laughing. And it is funny. Because she clearly has a knack for it.
Living in the States during the 2016 election was an angry time for Heywood. “I remember feeling so upset at the injustice of it all – the ludicrous nature of what had happened despite all of this evidence – it took me by massive surprise.” A stint as a temporary office worker gave her a chance to convert that negative emotion into something new: “Everyone was on holiday. I was a PA and none of my people were actually in the office so I had loads of time free.” ‘Write something,’ her husband suggested. What she created is a striking portrayal of female anger. “I was so influenced by Black Mirror the TV program – set in the future in a time where things have become less about humans and more about technology. When we lose that human connection, what happens? I had this awful thought that violence is the only way that humans can connect in the future.” It’s a terrifying darkness that, she says, “hopefully we can avoid.”
She calls her play “a feminist piece. Irreverent, a little bit cheeky, from a liberated Middle Eastern woman’s viewpoint – dare I say, a Westernized Middle Easterner who feels at odds with her culture in that Western world.” Reminding me of Issaq’s Vegas childhood, Heywood talked about the complicated inner gymnastics involved in carrying that culture in a Western context: “You feel misunderstood when you tell people where you’re from. You’re being judged in a way that you have no control over because of the narrative that’s been spread about that part of the world for so so long by the West, and it’s inaccurate mostly and two-dimensional.”
Heywood was brought up in a quiet suburb in Surrey in a household that was half Iraqi, half English. Plenty of Iraqi family nearby meant plenty of Iraqi food, music and parties – whereas she would “only sporadically” see the English side of the family. While she’s traveled in the Middle East, she’s never visited Iraq and knows it only secondhand – mainly through her father, a native of Basra. Even he has been back only once, but the visit was fraught: “He went back when Saddam Hussein was just about to invade Kuwait and he had to leave the country really quickly, through an escape route through Jordan. If he hadn’t got out, he could have been in some bother.” (She did pick up the English art of understatement.) None of her family has been back since. “Before I die, I desperately want to visit the country, and see if there’s anything left of that Iraq that my dad talks about so fondly” – his vivid memories of a beautiful, cosmopolitan seaside town full of ships and palm trees – “if you can ever get back to that kind of thing.”
After five years in NYC, Heywood has moved back to London, now with a 20-month-old son. Migrants and inheritance move in both directions: “As soon as I had a baby it made me so much more connected to [the Iraqi] side of my life. Once you have your own child, it totally multiplies it. It’s an incredible thing. It makes you so aware of where you’ve come from.”
Like all the writers, she is grateful for the chance to be part of Golden Thread’s festival: “I’m obviously over the moon, but I still don’t quite believe it.” This moment, Heywood says, feels like “the ‘beyond-my-wildest-dreams’ part of my career.” She’s currently in rehearsals for previous ReOrient writer Hannah Khalil’s play A Museum in Baghdad, opening at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon on 12th October. “This play is a thing of beauty, incredibly complex but with such clarity. She would be [my] writing idol. If I ever get some spare time again” – remember her 20-month-old son? – Heywood promises she will give writing another go. Maybe.
“I don’t seem to have a place I can talk about this, so I’ll just make one up.”
Is Sharei a writer or a sociologist first? Considering this young playwright’s approach to story, it’s hard to tell – in a great way. In Spenglic blends many parts of her own experience into a speculative, near-future play about migration, healthcare, labor rights and self-sacrifice. Its invented geography comes partly from her own history, moving often between the United States and Middle East.
Like Issaq and Heywood, Sharei is also first-generation, with an Iranian-German mother (born in Mashhad) and an Iranian father (born in Tehran) who met in San Jose. Born in the East Bay, Sharei spent her childhood in Tehran, then high school ping-ponging between Dubai and the Bay Area. “With my nuclear family the whole concept of traveling is foreign – at least when we were kids, we would just move to places.” She wrote the first iteration of In Spenglic as a young adult, finally starting to take control of her own geography: “Okay, I need to make my own decisions, I was no longer being thrown around from one place to another ‘cause your parents are doing it for you.”
Finding her personal center of gravity also involves looking at language (including names) – a signifier of identity that fascinates Sharei, and is also at the center of her play. Her very name has been a minefield from the start. When her parents were registering her birth with Iranian officials, her mother was not permitted to put her daughter’s first name on her Iranian passport. ‘Niku’ is Farsi for ‘good’, derived from the Zoroastrian motto: ‘Good thoughts, good words, good deeds (pendar e nik, goftar e nik, kerdar e nik)’. And it also happens to sound very much like an Arabic slang word for ‘prostitute’. The late-‘80s pushback against Persian culture meant that “depending on who you got [when you were registering a birth] they would stop you from using certain kinds of names.” The registry official called up Sharei’s mother and told her to pick another name. When she pushed back, he apparently said, “You should be happy that I even called you – I could have named her Fatima or whatever I wanted.” So her Iranian passport holds only her Arabic middle name: Soraya. Arabic speakers do sometimes draw attention to her first name: ‘You know what your name means?’ For Sharei, the questions make her want to hold onto it more tightly. She recalls seeing a production of The Crucible in San Francisco and being so struck when John Procter shouted, ‘Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!’
In Spenglic playwright Niku Sharei, center, stands with director Lisa Marie Rollins, left, and ReOrient Festival Lead Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad in early 2019.
Sharei loves the Bay Area theatre scene – with great thanks to Golden Thread. She first heard about the company through an Iranian student group at UC Berkeley. Her first ReOrient experience was as a festival intern in 2012 and “the relationship hasn’t stopped since.” She began working for the company in 2017, doing a variety of things from box office to intern management. Having seen them in action (both front and back of house), Sharei knows that Golden Thread’s work is high quality and that they treat artists with great respect. She is overjoyed to be working with them as a writer for the first time. Although she wrote the play five years ago, Sharei never had the chance to develop it. “I could tell there were some issues with it, but I didn’t quite know how to fix it. I just really wanted to learn more.” The hands-on ReOrient process is ideal for new writers, spending time asking the important questions before it hits the stage, making sure it’s concise but that complex ideas make it to the audience intact.
In Spenglic was produced once before in an early draft, at a small festival in United Arab Emirates called Short+Sweet, but it was only for one night and “the bar was extremely low: ‘If you’re not shouting profanity or insulting the government and their friends, we’ll put you on stage,’ that’s essentially what the rules were. This is my first time properly being produced – it’s been a long-time dream and I’m very slowly processing it.” She’s looking forward to seeing how audiences relate to it over the course of the month; the bleak humor could lead to very different responses each night, and she loves that possibility.
“I have always been curious about adventure stories – events full of adrenaline.”
Whether it’s following the American Dream or getting the job done, scapegoating or discrimination, U.S. society is forever telling tales about immigrants. Especially when immigrants tell their own stories, the results are rarely ‘same old’. Turkish-American journalist and filmmaker Mustafa Kaymak’s award-winning writing is testament to the unexpected and unflinching.
His perspective is the product of a complex identity even before he emigrated: “I grew up with two languages and two identities in Ankara,” Kaymak says. “I was Kurdish at home, and Turkish everywhere else. I believe this prepared me to realize the importance of narrative, the power of language and the need for empathy for better communication. I learned that writing is a powerful tool to truly feel what it is like to be another person. Sometimes, when I wrote, I became a mute gravedigger in a gloomy cemetery, or maybe an undocumented pedicab driver struggling to make a living in Central Park.”
Migration has marked his life, and his stories. In 2008, after finishing a degree in journalism, Kaymak left his hometown and moved to the U.S. “When a friend invited me to visit Alaska for the summer, immediately I accepted.” The summer in Alaska turned into three years as Kaymak met, fell in love, and moved in with his now wife.
“The place and time we live in truly determines the style and the content of our writing,” Kaymak says, tracing how geographic and political circumstances have colored his output: “During my time in Alaska, with never-ending biting cold and dreary nights, I felt like I was on a different planet. My writings were mostly about characters trying to make sense out of their place in the world. While studying playwriting at Columbia University, I began to pay more attention to politics. For a while, I was interested in the domestic situation in Turkey and how it was influenced by world politics. The Basement was inspired from the news I was reading. I still write stories that take place in Turkey, but recently I’ve grown interested in writing about being from the Middle East and living in the USA.”
Mustafa Kaymak, center, watches the footage of his short film Green with director Suzanne Andrews Correa, left, and co-producer Michael Peters.
Kaymak has been following ReOrient for a few years, since meeting Evren Odcikin during a Middle East America Convening at The Lark theater laboratory in NYC and then connecting with Golden Thread and Torange Yeghiazarian. He appreciates the festival’s focus on “full-shaped original stories with diverse backgrounds,” he says, and was very happy to be chosen as a writer for the festival this year, especially knowing how competitive the process is. “I was even more thrilled when I saw my name appearing next to very accomplished writers from the Middle East.” He’s grateful to Yeghiazarian and Odcikin: “Thank you for helping my voice to be heard.”
This will be the first production of Kaymak’s short play The Basement, set in a military office in southeastern Turkey. A Kurdish journalist, Ayca, begins interviewing a lieutenant about the disappearance of activists, and the tables are rapidly turned. “I’m very curious about whether any of the audience will be familiar with the dynamics and politics of my story,” Kaymak says. He’s looking forward to seeing the play in action and understanding it anew through people’s reactions.
Kaymak’s short film Green, co-written and directed by Suzanne Andrews Correa, received this year’s Sundance Short Film Jury Award for U.S. Fiction, and has appeared in festivals from Vancouver to Galway. The film, Kaymak says, “was inspired by true events during my stay in a tiny New York City apartment with a boatload of residents. It’s the story of two undocumented Turkish brothers facing the challenges of life in New York City.” He’s currently working on the feature version, aimed for production in mid-2020.
Kaymak also hopes to develop work for television (either solo or as part of a writers’ room), and to finish the plays and novels already on his slate. He has many stories to tell. “I know that literature builds a bridge between countries, people, and cultures, so I began to write stories of displacement, immigration, identity, and coming to America,” – most of which, he says, stem from his own experiences and tales he’s heard from friends and fellow travelers. He’s arrived at a place of strength and clarity of intention: “In recent years, much of the negative publicity surrounding the Middle Eastern diaspora has made me question my place in this country. Increasing authoritarianism not only in the United States but in the world and violation of human rights has pulled my full attention to these subjects and helped me shape my role as a writer.”