Playwright Yussef El Guindi Brings a Singular Voice to Local Theater

El Guindi’s plays challenge stereotypes about Arab Americans
Brangien Davis  |   July 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Yussef El Guindi
Playwright Yussef El Guindi gets into the mindset of an Egyptian cab driver with his new play

Believe it or not, we have the weather to thank for luring acclaimed playwright Yussef El Guindi to Seattle. In the early 1990s, El Guindi was a playwright-in-residence and lecturer at Duke University. As his term was coming to an end, he wanted to move to a city with a strong theater scene—beyond the obvious one. (“At the time,” he says, “my nerves were too raw” to deal with New York City.) His new home also had to be a “livable city” with good public transportation, since El Guindi doesn’t drive. That left Chicago, Minneapolis and Seattle. He weighed perpetual rain against brutal winters and moved here in 1994. As it turned out, El Guindi’s new surroundings heralded a new career path as well. Instead of splitting his time between acting, teaching and writing plays, El Guindi began focusing entirely on playwriting. Previously, he says, his subject matter had been “all over the place,” but a significant life event soon tightened his focus. Born in Cairo and raised in London, El Guindi became a U.S. citizen in 1996, at the INS building on Airport Way.

“Swearing the oath was actually a very moving experience,” he says. “I really felt like I was two different people—one walked in, another walked out.” Very suddenly, he says, he felt “plugged into the primary narrative of United States: the immigrant narrative.” El Guindi, then in his mid-30s, began to feel his subject matter should reflect his own experience—meaning the immigrant experience—which he holds in common with countless other citizens.

Since that realization, El Guindi’s plays have been about outsiders—often Arab Americans—trying to fit into American culture while at the same time colliding with strongly ingrained stereotypes and presumptions. Back of the Throat (2005) addresses post-9/11 paranoia and suspicion about Arab Americans living in the US; Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes (2009) tells the story of an Arab-American actor who must choose between his integrity and making big bucks playing an evil terrorist in an action movie; and in Language Rooms (2010), an Arab American who works as translator at a high-security detention center begins to suspect he’s under surveillance too.

If these themes sound provocative, they are, but his plays are also comedic. In review after review, El Guindi is heralded for his masterful use of humor—be it dark, slapstick or clever. In fact, he is something of a humor expert (in addition to being a funny, affable guy in person). While at Duke, El Guindi’s area of dramatic concentration was farce, the absurd nature of which actually fits quite naturally with the bizarre situations in which immigrants often find themselves. “Comedy is always situational,” says El Guindi. “It’s in the clumsiness of daily interactions.” This is amplified, he explains, “when characters have misperceptions of each other, because that’s one more potential element for misunderstanding.”

El Guindi’s new play, Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World—which has its world premiere at ACT theater this month—promises to be rife with clumsy interactions and misperceptions (and therefore, laughs), featuring as it does a new-to-America Egyptian cab driver who falls for a spitfire American waitress. While it reveals the complications of intercultural relationships, it’s also a romantic comedy. “As a playwright, my job is to engage and entertain an audience. That’s it,” El Guindi says. “I don’t want it to be homework—even in heavy plays, I try to entertain.”

He’s succeeding. El Guindi’s roster of awards and accolades is lengthy and prestigious: His work is produced in independent theaters nationwide; his one-act plays have appeared in Best American Short Plays; he’s earned praise in The New York Times and The New Yorker; in 2009 he won the Osborn New Play Award from the American Theatre Critics Association (for the 2008 play Our Enemies: Lively Scenes of Love and Combat); and in February, he received the Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award, which came with a $10,000 commission.

This last award is part of Middle East America: A National New Plays Initiative, sponsored by a consortium of theaters in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and specifically designed to develop “plays of the highest artistic caliber” that “challenge both the lack of representation and the one-dimensional stereotypical representation of persons of Middle Eastern descent on America’s stages.”

El Guindi is thrilled to use the commission to work on a new play concerning where and how stories about Arab Americans fit into the American cultural landscape. Currently, it’s unusual to see Arab Americans portrayed in pop culture outside the role of bad guy (or Disney’s Aladdin). But of course that doesn’t mean stories about “regular” Arab Americans don’t exist. “More of these stories are percolating up at the edges,” he says, with hope in his voice. El Guindi believes the standard will change, over time. “It’s a struggle, but there is a little more interest now,” he says. “Irish, Italian, African American, Latino, Asian... it’s happened for everyone in America.”