by Torange Yeghiazarian
It was a thrilling April when Bay Area audiences had the pleasure of experiencing not one but two world premieres of plays by Middle Eastern American playwrights. By some strange twist of fate, both plays were set in Cairo, which inexplicably brought a smile to my face every time I looked at both postcards on my refrigerator door.
The first show was Yussef El Guindi’s Hotter Than Egypt which received its world premiere in a co-production of Marin Theatre Company (MTC) with A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) in Seattle. It was directed by ACT’s John Langs with MTC’s Nakissa Etemad serving as dramaturg. The story is centered on an American couple celebrating their 24th wedding anniversary in Egypt but in typical El Guindi fashion, the romance is short-lived as the seductive surroundings induce marital troubles. The couple drag in their Egyptian tour guides—who happen to be newly-engaged and very much in love—into their personal problems providing fertile ground for the audience to observe the power dynamics and financial inequity between the two couples. El Guindi tells the story with humor and tenderness allowing his audience to enjoy Cairo not as detached tourists but with deep emotional investment.
The second play, Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, was inspired by the actual police raid in 2001 of the Queen Boat, a gay nightclub docked on the Nile. Directed by Golden Thread’s new artistic director Sahar Assaf, the play follows the impact of the event on the lives and relationship of three friends. Depiction of gay life in the Middle East is rare on American stages to begin with but a nuanced depiction that celebrates joyful intimacy and friendship is even more rare. The fact that Elsayegh accomplishes that while also leaning into the personal and social challenges of gay life is a testament to his impressive story-telling skills. As I watched the play, I was struck by just how rare it was to see Arab men laugh, flirt, and be goofy on stage. It’s a heartbreaking realization that underscores the necessity of staging more Middle Eastern American plays.
Experiencing these two plays in the same month, I was struck by how far our Middle Eastern American theatre community has come. We are witnessing the convergence of empowered leadership and artistic excellence in a changing regional theatre landscape that I hope will continue to value and support Middle Eastern American dramatists.
by Cleavon Smith
In the East Bay, California Shakespeare Theater, under the artistic leadership of Eric Ting, launched their Shared Light Initiative, going beyond the dutiful Land Acknowledgement and into “Privilege Acknowledgement.” Through this initiative Cal Shakes pledges it will “center relationships over transactions” as exemplified in Cal Shakes hosting Destiny Arts Center’s annual dance recital in May. Waiting for Destiny Arts’ show to begin, I realized a fantasy I could before barely allow myself to dream: intergenerational people of color celebrating the artistry of young people of color in a space as beautiful as Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater in the East Bay Hills.
Also, this season we celebrated the beginning of Sean San José’s tenure as Artistic Director of San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. During the event, the company announced it would host residencies for Campo Santo, Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, and Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience.
Such relationships show the kind of theatremaker one was before “Dear White American Theater.” It is a strong indicator of genuine rather than performative or aesthetic responses. The relational leadership of Ting and San José is working to make theatre accountable to everyone who feels othered in the region we call home.
When Magic announced San José as its next Artistic Director, the Chronicle quoted playwright Star Finch (Shipping and Handling, Bondage) as expressing, “The pairing of Sean San José and Magic Theatre is a lightning strike of San Francisco spirit!”
Combined with Ting and other co-conspirators, that lightning strike might just prove to be the area’s beacon instead.
by Jewelle Gomez
I’m old enough to remember radio dramas—magical to me when I was a kid. The timber of an actor’s voice carried me to stories like a parachute landing in rich fields. However, fully staged dramas online during the pandemic left me somewhat dissatisfied in complex ways. So, I went in search of more simple narrative delivery—kind of like radio, but theatre.
Searching the internet horizon, I came across Hold Me the Forgotten Way, a cycle of audio monologues written by Harrison David Rivers, presented by Theatre Rhinoceros and Tiger Bear Productions, both based in the Bay Area, and aired in 2021. The ‘micromonologues’ were read by men of color, produced by theatres from across the country, and are about everything. “You know those moments in New York,” was acted by Russell Jordan, who was never too sweet or too blasé, as he narrated the story of glimpsing his potential (but unattainable) soulmate through the window of a subway train speeding in the opposite direction (produced by TOSOS [NYC]). In the title piece, produced by New Conservatory Theatre Center, the adult character longingly remembers being queer in second grade. Troy Rockett adeptly embodies that yearning for pure, old-fashioned connection that eschews algorithms and hook-up sites.
Rivers’ monologues are elegant, poetic, and funny as they convey the desires and disappointments of men not often heard: gay men of color. Each piece landed me in a richly satisfying, emotional world listening to voices I’d come to miss and want to hear again.
World Premieres: California – North
Drowning in Cairo by ADAM ASHRAF ELSAYIGH. Golden Thread Productions, San Francisco, CA
Em-Pathetic by PHYLLIS GORDON. Marsh International Solo Festival, Berkeley, CA
Father/Daughter by KAIT KERRIGAN. Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley, CA
Escape from the Asylum by PATRICIA MILTON. Central Works Theater, Berkeley, CA
The Promise libretto by GEORGE PFIRRMANN, music by Peter Allen. Bruns Amphitheater, West Edge Opera Company, Orinda, CA
Coffee Lady by BRIDGETTE PORTMAN. PianoFight, Awesome Theatre, San Francisco, CA
Facetime with Finnick by ROBERT ST. JOHN. Your Worst Nightmare Play Festival, Strange Prescription, San Francisco, CA
Galatea by DAVID TEMPLETON. Spreckels Theatre Company, Rohnert Park, CA