Entertainment » Theatre

Playwright Yussef El Guindi brings explosive political drama to Philly

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Mar 12, 2010

Sedition, loyalty and betrayal are just some of the themes of Yussef El Guindi politically explosive drama Language Rooms, in its premiere at the Wilma Theatre. Earlier this week El Guindi bounded into the Wilma's lobby before a preview to explain that even though the play deals with government interrogations and images of humiliation, he doesn't avoid comic elements that the grim realities present.

"It's a dark humor," he explained. "It's from the absurdities... we live with that arise from some of these political and bureaucratic decisions that I try to convey in this play."

His mix of international discourse and emotional identity, post 9/11, packs a dramatic punch in the gut, at the same time plot twists play with your head.

El Guindi, a British playwright who has been living in this country for 25 years, is sensitive to Arab and Muslim relations and how they have played out in Western countries. He explains that he takes a long time to write his play, which is evident in the craft he displays in his character-driven dialogue that is visceral, poetic and scabrous.

Philadelphians were introduced to El Guindi's challenging style in his comedy Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, which had a successful run at InterAct Theater last year. It dealt with Arab-American relations irreverently and challenged cultural taboos. As part of their commitment to political and socially relevant theater, the Wilma creative team (led by Artistic Director Blank Zizka) contacted El Guindi about doing a play; coincidently he had completed Language Rooms about a year before.

"I've noticed during previews that people don't know, in certain spots, if it is all right to laugh," explains El Guindi. Tentative reactions is something he experienced in his other plays as well, particularly Back of the Throat, which he said was very politically provocative when it opened in the middle of the Bush years; but as time went on, its controversy subsided.

Among numerous hot topics, Language Rooms is about US policies on prisoner interrogation. El Guindi explains it takes place "in one of these so called black sites where prisoners are brought to be interrogated and while it is not about that specifically, it's more about questions of identity, fitting in and immigration."

In his narrative El Guindi circles these spiky issues like a steel-eyed matador who doesn't miss a kill. "To start off with Arabs and Muslims, it is already kind of a divisive subject. Given negative press and all that has happened. Add the torture and interrogation... it is tangentially about all of these subjects.

"Given the subject matter, there aren't that many fair depictions of Arabs or Muslims anyway... and when they are depicted it is in a negative light. When there is a play or a movie, (the writer) carries the burden of trying to set the record straight...

"The request from the Arab and Muslim communities, rightly, is to please counter those stereotypes. I believe I do that by presenting three-dimensional characters. This problem of carrying the burden will stop once there are more plays and you see the whole spectrum."

Illuminating that spectrum in Language Rooms is an multi-media production design, Zizka's direction and tore de force lead performances by Sevan Greene as the Arab-American interrogator, Ahmed and Nassar Faris as the interrogatee, Samir.

Language Rooms continues through April 4, 2010 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. Philadelphia, PA. For more information visit the Wilma Theater website.


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