Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists. By Michael Malek Najjar.
Current Issue, Volume 13

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar

MIDDLE EASTERN AMERICAN THEATRE: COMMUNITIES, CULTURES AND ARTISTS. By Michael Malek Najjar. Methuen Drama Critical Companions. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2021; pp. 237 + xii

Reviewed by Robert Myers, American University of Beirut

Even for those who have been paying close attention to developments in theatre by and about Middle Eastern Americans and Canadians in the past two decades, this new compendium by theatre scholar and director Michael Malek Najjar is likely to offer an abundance of surprising new information and insights. Najjar’s volume documents this theatre’s vital cultural, political and dramatic interventions in debates about racism, colonialism, militarism and displacement since the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York. The book will doubtless become an indispensable resource for contemporary scholars of theatre, Middle Eastern studies, literature and political science who want to trace this evolving new tradition and for artists focused on theatrical works about some of the most pressing concerns of the first twenty years of the 21st century.

In the introduction, Najjar immediately problematizes the category from which his study takes its title by describing his approach as polycultural—as opposed to multicultural—a term he borrows from Vijay Prashad. Polycultural recognizes that people have a host of competing, fluid lineages that entail political and cultural engagement.  By using apposite examples and well-chosen lists of countries, ethnicities and religions, Najjar presents the reader with a sense of the breadth of what he calls the “complex tapestry that makes up the people of the Middle East” (2). He points, moreover, to the arbitrary and often illogical divisions one necessarily comes up against in the use of national and ethnic categories, such as the general exclusion of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, which are all Muslim countries, from the Middle East, but the inclusion of Iran. He explains his exclusion of texts from Spanish-, Portuguese- and French-speaking parts of South and Central America and the Caribbean as a function of his inability to read those texts in the original languages, and perhaps also to prevent the study from becoming unwieldy. He also pays close attention to Jewish American plays, especially those that consciously enter into a dialogue with Arab and Arab American concerns, those that address traumas associated with dislocation and diaspora, and those that dramatize the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In the introduction he provides a welcome capsule of the complexity of Jewish identity, pointing out that whereas Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews have inhabited the Mediterranean and Muslim world for centuries, most Ashkenazy Jews, who have disproportionately been the elite in Israeli society since its inception, are recent arrivals in the region, and—as is also the case with Armenians—are generally considered European. Although he offers brief summaries of the histories of 19th– and early 20th-century Jewish American (including Yiddish), Turkish American, Iranian, and Lebanese and Syrian American theatre figures and companies, the study includes no examination of international cross-germination despite the fact that the latter community includes such transnational writers and playwrights of the Mahjar as Khalil Gibran, Amin Rihani, and Mikhail Naimy.

After a listing of contemporary Middle Eastern American theatre companies, all of which are based in the U. S., Najjar examines trends in the tradition by looking at plays thematically, which he describes as “return to homeland,” “persecution,” “diaspora,” “set in the homeland,” and “conflict.” The first category includes Najla Said’s solo performance Palestine, about the travails and ironies of growing up Palestinian on the Upper West Side of New York and being Edward Said’s daughter, and Leila Buck’s equally ironic three-character play about being a Lebanese American who visits Lebanon during the 2006 invasion by Israel with her Jewish American husband. The chapter on “persecution” plays includes an analysis of Roar, Betty Shamieh’s portrait of a family of Palestinian shopkeepers in Detroit in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and the damage and trauma caused by multiple displacements in Palestinian communities. The chapter on “diaspora” plays includes, for example, a summary of Heather Raffo’s Noura, which depicts an Iraqi Christian professional couple, Noura and Tarek, who fled Iraq for New York. Their world is upended when a young pregnant refugee named Maryam from their hometown of Mosul arrives at their home on Christmas after escaping the horrors wrought on the population of the city by ISIS. The chapter on “plays set in the homeland” includes Mona Mansour’s Urge for Going, part of her Vagrant Trilogy, which recently received a major production at New York’s Public Theater. The chapter on “conflict plays” places Lebanese Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad’s celebrated drama Scorched alongside other wartime dramas such as Tariq Hamami’s Smail, based on the true story of the brutal interrogation and torture of a man with epilepsy wrongly arrested by a government agent during the 1990s crackdown against Islamist radicals in Algeria.

The study does an excellent job of cataloging works by major contemporary American and Canadian playwrights who are of Middle Eastern descent such as Yussef el Guindi, Betty Shamieh, and Wajdi Mouawad in relation to lesser-known works such as This Time, by Sevan K. Greene, which was inspired by stories from Egyptian writer Amal Meguid’s Not So Long Ago, and directed by Lebanese Canadian Kareem Fahmy, and Dragonflies, by Turkish American writer, musician and actor Melis Aker, a memory performance that draws on the violent imagery of ISIS videos posted on-line as a means of interrogating Middle Eastern identity in North America as the so-called “war on terror” became increasingly fraught and violent. Arguably the most elucidating part of the study is an extended interview with Jamil Khoury, artistic director of Silk Road Rising, in Chicago, and Torange Yeghiazarian, former artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, in San Francisco, both of whom are also playwrights. Their experiences producing theatre over the past two decades seem emblematic of the conflicts that necessarily arise between theories concerning identity, representation, power, ideology, and so-called culturally appropriate casting and the reality of producing plays, attracting audiences, and sustaining and building theatres—especially ones devoted to giving voice to marginalized communities whose works frequently dramatize disturbing subjects from uncomfortable perspectives. Insights offered by Yeghiazarian and Khoury give the reader a sense of what it means in real world terms to embrace polyculturalism as a model and celebrate the pluralities to which theatre has historically given form while at the same time addressing long-term societal inequities.

Although this volume is a “critical companion,” a snapshot of recent theatre by and about Middle Eastern Americans, it could have benefited from more analysis of the formal innovations that the introduction of this new subject matter necessitated. One thinks, for example, of how the frank dramatization of racial divisions in Fires in the Mirror required a radical re-invention of the monodrama and documentary performance forms, which, in turn, influenced the form of a range of subsequent plays and performances. Moreover, analyzing plays such as Heather Raffo’s Noura as a work in dialogue with contemporary productions such as Lucas Hnath’s The Doll’s House, Part Two and Lee Breuer and Mabou Mines’ DollHouse would have helped to elucidate the ways in which Raffo’s work transcends categorization as a strictly Middle Eastern or feminist play. Although Najjar does devote space to the discussion of works by the celebrated Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, the volume would have been enhanced by more analysis of the relationship between contemporary plays by Arab Americans and recent Arabic works from the MENA region by writers such as Julia Baccar and Sa’dallah Wannous, that cover similar thematic and formal territory. Nevertheless, Michael Malek Najjar is to be commended for compiling so much useful information about Middle Eastern American theatre, introducing readers to a range of vital theatre artists and guiding readers through many of the most compelling theatrical works produced in the U. S. and Canada in the past two decades. We can only hope that, when he updates this companion in a decade, theatrical artists and audiences will have continued to focus on the complex, intertwined relationships between North America and the MENA region.

Robert Myers is a playwright, cultural historian and translator. He is a Professor of English and director of the Alwaleed Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) and the Theater Initiative, with Sahar Assaf, at the American University of Beirut. He is the translator, editor and author, with Nada Saab, of Sentence to Hope: A Sa’dallah Wannous Reader (Yale UP) and Modern and Contemporary Political Theater for the Levant (Brill)and the editor, with Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, of The Theatre of Sa’dallah Wannous (Cambridge UP). His most recent play, which received a workshop production at Yale in 2022, is A Thousand Strange Places: Anthony Shadid and the Middle East.

Arab Stages
Volume 13 (Fall 2022)
©2022 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center Publications

Founding Editor: Marvin Carlson

Founders: Marvin Carlson and Frank Hentschker

Editor: Edward Ziter

Performance Reviews Editor: Katherine Hennessey

Editorial and Advisory Board: Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Dina Amin, Khalid Amine, Dalia Basiouny, Katherine Donovan, Masud Hamdan, Sameh Hanna, Rolf C. Hemke, Areeg Ibrahim, Jamil Khoury, Dominika Laster, Margaret Litvin, Rebekah Maggor, Safi Mahfouz, Robert Myers, Michael Malek Naijar, Hala Nassar, George Potter, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo


Table of Contents:

Playing the Street: Syrian Musicians in Istanbul by Jonathan H. Shannon

It’s Only Funny with Stage Directions by Laila Sajir, Introduction by Andrew Goldberg

Hotter Than Egypt by Yussef El Guindi, directed by John Langs, reviewed by Michael Malek Najjar

English by Sanaz Toossi, directed by Knud Adams, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Hassan Hajiyah, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Wish You Were Here and First Down reviewed by Renate Mattar

Birds of a Kind by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Robert Schuster, reviewed by Marvin Carlson

Drowning in Cairo by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, directed by Sahar Assaf, reviewer by Samer Al-Saber

Arab and Middle Eastern Productions at the Avignon 2022 Festival by Philipa Wehle and Marvin Carlson

Review of Stories Under Occupation and Other Plays from Palestine edited by Samer Al-Saber and Gary M. English, reviewed by Zeina Salame

Review of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula written by Katherine Hennessey, reviewed by George Potter

Review of Middle Eastern American Theatre: Communities, Cultures and Artists written by Michael Malek Najjar, reviewed by Robert Myers

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