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Borders & Heritage

Writing an American Story: Playwright Yussef El Guindi

April 27, 2016

Yussef El Guindi flips through the pages of his newest play. Seated next to the director, he follows along with the actress who is rehearsing her lines in the small rehearsal room at Theatre Puget Sound.  The play, set to open in Seattle, is Collaborator — a one-woman show in which the character, an American woman, is speaking directly to the audience about her history with men, including an experience of sexual assault. El Guindi doesn’t mince words, and the lines she speaks, though filled with humor, are explicit enough to be jarring. And that is clearly his intention.

“That play, in a sense, is a continuation of Threesome,” explains El Guindi when we sit down for an interview. (Click 'Watch Now' above to view the interview.)

Playwright Yussef El Guindi

After premiering at Portland Center Stage in 2015, Threesome went on to be performed at ACT in Seattle and had a six-week run off-Broadway in New York City. It is the story of an Egyptian-American couple who invite a white American into their bed for a threesome. Weaving themes of war, betrayal and sexuality, the story addresses the current atmosphere of mutual distrust between America and Arab countries, as well as the precarious position of women in society when it comes to control over their own bodies.  

“[InThreesome], the first act really plays like a bedroom comedy and the second act becomes more and more serious in tone as we begin to learn about what happened to the central character, Leila,” says El Guindi. The genesis of the play stems from events that occurred during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, when a number of women were sexually assaulted during the revolution.

Allia Attallah and Quinn Frazen in 'Threesome' - Photo: Patrick Weishampel. Courtesy of ACT - A Contermporary Theatre

Stories of immigrants, particularly Arab-Americans, are a common thread in many of El Guindi's plays. It’s an experience that El Guindi knows intimately, being born in Cairo, raised in London and then moving to the United States. “I’ve been an immigrant since the age of 3,” he says. “Even returning back to Cairo, I felt slightly like a foreigner there,” says El Guindi of his return to study English at the American Univeristy in Cairo.  

His play Musa and Sheri in the New World is about a doomed romance between an Arab immigrant and a American waitress. In 2012, the play won the $25,000 Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, which honors best American scripts premiering outside of New York City. 

Shanga Parker as Musa and Carol Roscoe as Sheri, in Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World by Yussef El Guindi, at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre. Photo by Chris Bennion.

“I pick Arab-American or Muslim-American characters because it’s easier for me to make references to those cultures,” explains El Guindi. “It’s a way of saying, well, you know, your perception of Arabs and Muslims may be this, but actually, you’re probably wrong, given what you’re exposed to in the mainstream media.”  

El Guindi comes from a literary family. “My grandmother was a [magazine] publisher in Egypt, my uncle was a writer, and my grandfather was a theatre director,” he shares. He likes to joke that he is living out his ‘plan B, ’ a backup to his initial plan, or 'plan A,' of becoming an actor.

“I love to act and acting was my first passion.” In fact, for graduate school he applied to several acting programs but the one he was accepted into was the playwriting program at Carnegie Mellon University. When the acting career didn’t take off, El Guindi stuck to writing, his plan B. To date, he has authored numerous plays, many of which have been performed in Seattle and beyond, and he is not done. 

Of the small but increasing number of Arab-American playwrights, says El Guindi: “They’re making some headway, but it’s still a challenge because ... I think theaters still are adjusting and trying to figure out culturally where these plays fit in.”

El Guindi's next play is The Talented Ones. It addresses what attaining the American Dream means for immigrants. The play has been selected for production in 2017 by the Artists Reperetory Theatre in Portland.


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Feature image: Shanga Parker as Musa and Carol Roscoe as Sheri, in 'Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World' at ACT - A Contemporary Theatre. Photo: Chris Bennion

 

 

Theatre director Anita Montgomery has directed three of El Guindi's plays in Seattle.

 

 

Actress Haley Gutherie rehearsing for 'Collaborator' opening in Seattle on April 28, 2016.

 

Yussef El Guindi's play 'Collaborator,' directed by Anita Montgomery and performed by Haley Gutherie opens in Seattle at West of Lenin.

 

“I pick Arab-American or Muslim-American characters... It’s a way of saying, well, you know, your perception of Arabs and Muslims may be this, but actually, you’re probably wrong, given what you’re exposed to in the mainstream media,”  says El Guindi.

Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is an award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places, and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila pitched, launched, and produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced the series Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Laila has produced stories for IN Close and for PIE. Laila's video stories have appeared on KCTS 9, PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art Beat, The Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES, and Pakistan's daily Dawn. Laila has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Washington.

More stories by Laila Kazmi

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