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Meet the Playwright: Yussef El Guindi

April 14, 2017

Yussef El Guindi is an Egyptian-American playwright, whose work consistently explores the immigrant experience with fierce intelligence, compassion and humor. Because of these qualities, Artists Rep selected him to inaugurate the theatre company’s new play development program, Table|Room|Stage. THE TALENTED ONES was workshopped in Spring 2016, and the full production opens April 29 on Artists Rep’s Morrison Stage. Recently, Luan Schooler, Director of New Play Development & Dramaturgy, interviewed Yussef about his inspirations for the play.

El Guindi’s plays are widely produced in the U.S. and have garnered many awards. He is the recipient of the 2010 Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award, and Seattle’s 2015 Stranger’s Genius Award. Recently, his play Threesome was produced by Portland Center Stage, ACT in Seattle, and at 59E59 in New York. In addition to The Talented Ones, his current projects include a co-adaptation with Philip Kan Gotanda of the Japanese epic The Tale of the Heike, slated for production at ACT in Seattle in 2018.

The Talented Ones was inspired at least in part by your personal experience. What was that and how does it inform the play?

Personal experience-wise: born in Egypt, immigrant by the age of 3. Raised in England. Rendered less Egyptian but not quite English enough for the English. Not quite Egyptian enough in Egypt when I returned for my undergraduate studies. Hauled myself to America, where eventually I became a citizen.

And here's the thing about becoming an American citizen:in spite of the anti-immigrant flair-ups that periodically course through this country, the key ingredient in the U.S. is its self-renewal through the continuous blood transfusion of new immigrants. In Europe, even if you become a citizen, you will always remain a foreigner in the eyes of a lot of Europeans. Not so in the States — in theory. The naturalization ceremony is actually very moving and effective in initiating new-comers. In its ritual, in the oath you take, it basically says/promises that regardless of your origins you are all now part of a new family. And the fact that you were foreign born does not make you any less American than the native born.

And America, in theory (I stress in theory) is not a blood thing — as it is in Europe — but an idea thing. To be American is to try and aspire to an idea of citizenship and nationhood. I think that’s why there’s more flag-waving and ostentatious shows of patriotism here than in Europe. While those flag-waving rallies can feel a bit jingoistic, I think they are a sort of communal chant to try and remind ourselves of a shared idea that is supposed to cohere us all into citizens.

Becoming a citizen of another country as an adult makes you hyper aware of the sorts of dynamics sketched above. All of that informed the writing of The Talented Ones.

Many of your plays explore some aspect of the immigrant journey, and frequently, how that journey collides with the American Dream. Has that terrain changed since you began writing plays?

That particular vein of exploration continues. I’m always startled by just how much more material there is to mine. What helps with the writing of these plays is that they’re deeply personal, while at the same time allowing me to connect with a larger, collective journey experienced by other immigrants.

And at the end of the day, my feeling is that the immigrant state of mind can be glimpsed by anyone who feels displaced, foreign, or at odds with – and trying to fit into – new surroundings. Which basically covers everyone! Who doesn’t at times feel slightly alien and separate from their environment, and the people that surround them? When we open our mouths and try to communicate with someone we are making an “immigrant” journey of sorts from our own familiar view of the world, to that stranger’s point of view. When it comes to human relations, it’s all terra incognito with unexpected borders, and much traveling to try and comprehend each other better.

Is there something in particular that you wish Americans understood better about the immigrant experience?

Uprooting yourself and trekking to a new land is psychologically and physically an arduous undertaking. You hopefully gain much in doing so, but there is also much loss as well. Uprooting means leaving behind that which has nurtured you (family, friends, culture, religion, smells, sounds, the familiar) and entering a world where you might not know the language, or the nuances of day-to-day interaction; nor understand the mainstream culture that’s mainstream because it embodies the values and norms that give comfort to the populace, but not yet to you because it’s all so unfamiliar. (And because you’re a newcomer, and therefore somewhat suspect, that mainstream culture will probably be reflecting you back via negative images and stories — in films, TV shows, the news. So not only are you to trying to find your place in the mainstream, that mainstream is blasting you from the rooftops with repeated negative portrayals and references).

In addition, you might have to emigrate, or flee as a refugee, without your family. You have no support system in place yet. Legally, because your rights are not the same as a U.S. citizen, you are walking on very thin ice all the time. The world you are trying to build might collapse at any moment. You walk around alternatively feeling like you’re integrating into your surroundings, perhaps even doing financially well via these new found opportunities, or: you’re feeling like someone with a neon sign blinking over their head that reads: “alien amongst you.”

Even after 34 years, and citizenship gained, I still occasionally feel that neon sign blinking overhead. And when certain “nativist” political currents run through the mainstream, and darken the world you’re trying to create, that neon sign shines even brighter.

If there was one thing that you would like audiences to take away from seeing The Talented Ones or any of your plays, what would that be?

My wish is always that audiences enjoy themselves. The bottom line of every one of my plays is simple enough: I hope you were stimulated, engaged and entertained by what you saw. 

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