This article is written by Michael Malek Najjar, a team member of the second partnership between Golden Thread and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. As a ReOrient Publications Dramaturg, Malek spoke with ReOrient playwrights Yussef El Guindi (Brass Knuckles), Betty Shamieh (An Echo of Laughter) and Naomi Wallace (The Book of Mima) to discuss their longtime histories with ReOrient & Golden Thread and their playwriting careers centered on the Middle East.
MICHAEL MALEK NAJJAR (PhD, MFA) is an Associate Professor of Theatre Arts with the University of Oregon. He is also a professional director whose recent works include Zafira and the Resistance (New Arab American Theatre Works at the Guthrie Theatre, co-directed with Zeina Salame), Scenes from 71 Years (Golden Thread Productions), and Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World (The Very Little Theatre). Malek teaches directing and dramaturgy at the University of Oregon.*
ReOrient 2019 Festival of Short Plays marks the 20th Anniversary of the festival and promises to be one of the most important yet, including three playwrights with longtime working relationships with Golden Thread Productions: Yussef El Guindi, Betty Shamieh, and Naomi Wallace. These playwrights (two of whom are Middle Eastern American) have been creating plays that address the Middle East for decades. Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi’s first play, Hostages, first produced in 1988, tackled Western intervention in Lebanon at the height of that country’s civil war. Palestinian-American playwright Betty Shamieh’s play Chocolate in Heat: Growing Up Arab in America, first premiered in 2001 and paved the way for female Arab American solo performances that followed. Naomi Wallace’s 1994 play In the Heart of America was a searing exploration of the First Gulf War which changed the way American theatres perceived how Arabs could be more fully represented on stage. In the ensuing years these playwrights have written myriad plays that explore cultural identity and the dissection of ongoing conflicts and foreign interventions in the Middle East, with a consistent focus on Arab and Arab American characters.
Their three plays chosen this year—El Guindi’s Brass Knuckles, Shamieh’s An Echo of Laughter, and Wallace’s The Book of Mima—also focus on Middle Eastern/Middle Eastern American characters and situations. What is most fascinating about these plays is that they are all monologues. In today’s world of isolation, persecution of minorities, and fear of ‘the other,’ these monologues provide fascinating views into the interior struggles Middle Easterners face on a regular basis.
For El Guindi, having his works produced at Golden Thread is valuable because the productions there validated his voice as a playwright, and told him that the stories he had to tell were important. When El Guindi began as a young artist, there was no “Middle Eastern” theatre where his work could be produced. “I had stories with Middle Eastern themes to tell,” he says, “but felt inhibited to tell them because I knew they’d be a hard sell.” This led to El Guindi doubting the worthiness of his own voice. El Guindi believes that his cultural identity as an Egyptian-American immigrant is his subject matter, and that his journey as an Arab and Muslim immigrant informs his storytelling. “It’s not about choosing, but simply letting the stories out,” El Guindi says. “The challenge lies in persuading theatres that these stories are as relevant to their audiences as any other play they choose to program in their season.” El Guindi contacted Golden Thread in the late ‘90s and received an immediate and positive response from Founding Artistic Director Torange Yeghiazarian. His adaptation of Chekhov’s short play The Marriage Proposal (in an Arab American setting) along with his short play Three Stops were both accepted and produced in ReOrient 2001.
James Asher and Paul Santiago in a 2005 production of Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat. // Photo by Farzad Mohr
Ironically, after 9 / 11 many large theatre institutions became curious about the Middle East, which further propelled El Guindi’s output and productions. However, it was Golden Thread that first took a genuine interest in his work. “It really did feel like I was out in the cultural wilderness until I connected with Golden Thread. Once I had a theatre I could partner with, the plays started pouring out.” Since then, El Guindi says he has felt a loyalty to Golden Thread for being the first theatre of note to actively support his work. Having had five full-length and now nine short plays produced at Golden Thread over the years, El Guindi is still eager to see what directors and actors can conjure onstage with his plays. Brass Knuckles is a reaction to the horrific attack by a white nationalist against two young Muslim women on a Portland MAX train in 2017 which resulted in the fatal stabbing of two men and the injuring of a third who stepped in to help them. The play explores a Muslim woman’s daily routine having to meet each day in the face of xenophobia and Islamophobia. The monologue is another example of the bold work that also characterizes plays by Shamieh and Wallace, whom El Guindi greatly admires. “Their strong voices are much needed now, and I am very heartened their work is getting out there,” he says. “Though still more theatres should be programming these two writers’ work into their seasons.” El Guindi also appreciates the dramaturgs that have assisted him over the years with his plays. Ultimately, it is the unique combination of play development and production that brings El Guindi back to Golden Thread time and time again. “It’s rare,” he says, “to find theaters that actively want to hear from you.”
“I had stories with Middle Eastern themes to tell,” El Guindi says, “but felt inhibited to tell them because I knew they’d be a hard sell.”
For Shamieh, Golden Thread has also been a major influence in her life, having grown up in the Bay Area. “I focused on theatre early in my career (as opposed to other forms of writing) because I love the opportunity to collaborate with a group of committed artists on a common goal of creating the most exciting theatre that we collectively can.” She had her first experience working with Golden Thread in ReOrient 2002, when they produced her play, Tamam (also restaged in the 10th Anniversary of ReOrient). The play started as a monologue, but later evolved into a character in one of her most compelling works, The Black Eyed. “For many members of the Palestinian-American community in the Bay Area, who knew me primarily as an activist,” Shamieh says, “Tamam was the first opportunity for them to see my work as a playwright.” In addition to five ReOrient Festivals to date, Shamieh has participated in Golden Thread’s annual International Women’s Day event, and her play As Soon As Impossible was read in last year’s New Threads Reading Series. Shamieh appreciates Golden Thread’s commitment to highlight the large variety of voices from the Middle East and the diaspora. She recalls, “Many folks still mention how seeing the Golden Thread production of Tamam was their first opportunity to hear a Palestinian voice onstage.”
Claudia Rosa and Shaudy Danaye Elmi in the 2010 production of Betty Shamieh’s Tamam. // Photo by Farzad Mohr
This year’s ReOrient play, An Echo of Laughter, was originally commissioned by Landestheater Linz in Austria and produced in German translation. This is the first time the play will be performed in English. Shamieh has a long history with her fellow playwrights Yussef El Guindi and Naomi Wallace. “I’ve known Yussef for longer than I can remember and am always touched by how generous he is as an artist and a person,” she says. “Naomi’s activism and artistry are incredibly inspiring. Her support for my work early on in my career has meant the world to me.” In fact, Shamieh traveled to Palestine in 2002 with Wallace and four other renowned American playwrights, which resulted in their co-authored American Theatre magazine article entitled “On the Road to Palestine.” For Shamieh, El Guindi and Wallace are “essential voices of our time.” Shamieh is considered one of the great postmodern female Arab American playwrights. She had the first off-Broadway premiere for an Arab American playwright and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Drama and Performance Art. In addition, her plays have been translated into seven languages. Once again, Golden Thread was the company that supported her work long before others took notice.
“What inspires me is the popular resistance in these countries under U.S. bombs. The making of art under the bombs. Joy found in the midst of devastation. Joy and community created beyond the imagination of empire,” Wallaces says.
Naomi Wallace has been a potent voice in American theatre for decades, and her focus on stories from the Middle East is well known by theatre goers. Her stunning plays In the Heart of America, The Fever Chart: Three Visions of the Middle East, and Twenty One Positions: A Cartographic Dream of the Middle East (co-written with Abdelfattah Abusrour and Lisa Schlesinger), are powerful meditations on topics ranging from the U.S. invasion of Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also co-edited the anthology Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora with Palestinian-American playwright Ismail Khalidi. Although Wallace is not of Middle Eastern descent, she has travelled to several countries in the region. She is also a strident critic of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. “I can’t remember when thinking and/or visioning the Middle East, and U.S. interference there, was not part of my imagination,” she says. Her plays focus on the interconnected nature of U.S.-Middle East relations. “I often travel to these countries in my imagination, but that’s with an imagination informed, deeply informed I hope, by the writings of authors from that area, historians who work outside the mainstream interpretations of ‘us’ and ‘them.’”
Nora El Samahy, Sara Razavi and Basel Naffouri in the world premiere of Naomi Wallace’s No Such Cold Thing. // Photo by Gohar Barseghyan
For many, this dichotomous thinking has led to much of the conflict that has marked the United States’ relations with the nations in the Middle East region. “What inspires me is the popular resistance in these countries under U.S. bombs. The making of art under the bombs. Joy found in the midst of devastation. Joy and community created beyond the imagination of empire.” Wallace has also been connected to Golden Thread for many years now, having been inspired by Torange Yeghiazarian’s passion and vision. She remembers meeting Yeghiazarian many years ago and that “right away I felt she was a person I wanted to know. She was lit up within. She had (and still has) such fresh vision, her passion for justice and making space for voices from what we sometimes still call ‘the periphery.’” She adds, “I was impressed by Golden Thread Productions’ work. But not only the quality but the breadth of the work, so many different voices brought together onto the stage. We speak a lot about the need to have ‘conversations’ between different experiences and points of view. Golden Thread has been doing this very thing for decades.” Wallace was so inspired, in fact, that she became an Advisory Board member for the company. This will be her sixth ReOrient Festival since 2004. She keeps returning to Golden Thread because it is “a brave theatre that is not afraid to produce controversial work.” Her play The Book of Mima had a staged reading as part of the Imagine: Yemen event in 2018, but she is excited that this year’s ReOrient production will be its world premiere.
Working with dramaturgs is instrumental for many playwrights, especially in premiering new plays for the first time, and Middle Eastern plays that have only recently entered mainstream culture. ReOrient 2019 marks the second partnering with the membership organization Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA). Yeghiazarian and LMDA Regional VP Metro Bay Area Nakissa Etemad began the fruitful partnership with ReOrient 2017, both seeing the value in collaboration and contextualization for the diversity of cultures explored in ReOrient’s for the past 20 years. Although El Guindi hasn’t had the opportunity to work with many dramaturgs, he appreciates that dramaturgs assist playwrights in understanding what is and is not working in their plays. He says he admires the scholarship and perspicacity of the dramaturgs he’s worked with during his career. Like El Guindi, Shamieh relishes the opportunity to work with dramaturgs, especially in a production context. “I feel my work reads differently on the page than aloud,” she says. “So I generally prefer to have a dramaturg hear the play in a cold reading before we dive deeply into the work. I have been blessed to be able to collaborate with the wonderful dramaturg, Nakissa Etemad, on both An Echo of Laughter and Make No Mistake [premiered in ReOrient 2017]. She has been an integral part of the development of those plays.”
This 20th anniversary edition of the ReOrient Festival of Short Plays promises to bring more controversial, challenging, and thought-provoking theatre to Bay Area audiences. The rich grouping of the selected playwrights—and the addition of Golden Thread Alumni Yussef El Guindi, Betty Shamieh, and Naomi Wallace—makes this festival a homecoming of sorts for playwrights who have a long history with the company. In a time when there is a paucity of Middle Eastern stories being told on the majority of U.S. stages, ReOrient continues to be an inspirational home for writers focusing their work on this vital region of the world.