Featured Playwrights. LTR: SEVAN, Ifrah Mansour, Nabra Nelson, Kathryn Haddad, Sana Wazwaz, Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, William Nour. (Not pictured: Aamera Siddiqui.) Photo by Makeen Osman, courtesy of Kathryn Haddad and New Arab American Theatre Works.
Articles, Current Issue, Reviews, Volume 14

Performance Review: Playwright Showcase New Arab American Theater Works directed by Sherrine Azab, project coordinated by Kathryn Haddad

PLAYWRIGHT SHOWCASE. New Arab American Theater Works, Multiple authors. Readings directed by Sherrine Azab, project coordinated by Kathryn Haddad. New Arab American Theater Works, Minneapolis. April 1-2, 2023.

Reviewed by Katherine Hennessey
(Review edited by Edward Ziter)

New Arab American Theater Works (NAATW) is a collective of artists, writers, and performers whose aim is to provide Arab American theatre-makers a dedicated platform from which to share their voices and tell their stories—an aim encapsulated by their recent Playwright Showcase, which offered local audiences staged readings of eight scripts by SWANA- and/or Muslim-identifying authors.

The Showcase took place over two days, in the collective’s small but functional performance space and lobby. These are located on the top floor of Open Book, a community center dedicated to the literary arts which inhabits a set of beautifully renovated 19th century warehouses in the historic mill district in downtown Minneapolis. Each of the Showcase’s eight plays received a staged reading of around 45 minutes (meaning that most were only excerpted), followed by around 25 minutes of discussion with the director and Q&A with the audience, moderated by local artists and scholars.

The audience composition changed with each reading: some spectators had clearly come to support a particular friend or colleague, and stayed only for one performance, while others attended multiple readings and discussions. (In the interests of full disclosure: my primary reason for being in Minneapolis that weekend was a Shakespeare conference, and because of conflicting events I was unable to attend all eight readings myself).

To kick off each session, Kathryn Haddad, NAATW’s Artistic/Executive Director, explained that the event had its genesis in the collective’s Playwright Incubator program. This was a series of online workshops held bi-monthly over the previous year, which brought the playwrights together, virtually, to read and discuss each other’s works in progress. The Showcase was not just a culmination of that program but also a public snapshot of where the scripts currently stood—some complete and polished, some still unfinished—and a long-awaited opportunity for the group to meet each other in person, and to see how their writing would play in front of a live audience.

Included on Day 1, in order of appearance, were “Conscience Café,” by NAATW board member Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, which depicts the struggles of a Somali café owner whose earnest pro-Palestinian activism is complicated by the competing demands of crises in Somalia, and “Ladan” (Somali for “prosperous”) by Ifrah Mansour, whose protagonist is a grieving young girl who receives a visit from a stranger who claims to know her recently deceased mother.

These were followed by “Confessions (or The Secret Play for Secretly Liberal Muslims)” by Nabra Nelson, which highlights the friendship between four Muslim American women in their twenties, as they try to navigate the often contradictory pressures of love and desire, marriage and family, religion and culture, and SEVAN’s “McArabia,” whose three characters are McDonald’s employees brainstorming locally-appropriate names and ingredients for a signature sandwich to be served at their soon-to-open location in Kuwait. Prolific playwright Aamera Siddiqui’s “Yaad Hai?” (Urdu for “do you remember?”), an absurdist play featuring a protagonist who awakes to find herself locked in an unfamiliar room, guarded by strangers, rounded out the first day’s readings.

William Nour speaking at the Q&A Session at the Playwright Showcase. Photo by Makeen Osman, courtesy of Kathryn Haddad and New Arab American Theatre Works.

Day Two opened with a reading of William Nour’s “Rosette.” Set in 1964, the play’s sixteen-year-old title character—born during the nakba and now living in Haifa with her displaced family—contemplates an uncertain future. Similar themes—the longing for a lost homeland, and the heartache of being unable to return—carried over into the second play of the day, “Birthright Palestine” by Sana Wazwaz, which portrayed the fraught attempts of Palestinian-American student activists to plan a heritage trip to the West Bank. The Showcase’s final reading was arguably the most conceptually complex: Adam Ashraf Elsayigh’s “Jamestown/Williamsburg” juxtaposes the contemporary experiences of Diyala, a young Syrian immigrant to the US who is preparing for her Green Card interview in 2019, with those of Agnes, who emigrates from England to the new colony of Jamestown in 1619.

The scripts, even those that were still in progress, were vibrant, hilarious, suspense-filled, and poignant in turns. “Birthright Palestine,” for example, was particularly effective in contrasting the obstacles confronting the Palestinian-American students with the ease of their Jewish counterparts’ effusively-described, all-expenses-paid Taglit trip, and Wazwaz perfectly calibrated the balance of ironic humor, empathy, and fierce resistance to injustice in her depiction of the smear campaigns that spring up against the students in local media and online, the draconian disciplinary policies of the university administration, and the risks of harassment, surveillance, and detention that the group faces at the border crossing. “McArabia,” the Showcase’s shortest play, kept the audience laughing while cleverly using the local burger trope to raise the issues of cultural appropriation and globalization’s flattening of difference. And the excerpt from Elsayigh’s script—the weaving together of his two heroines’ storylines, bound together by four hundred years of history, and the intriguing suggestion of attraction between the Lord of the Virginia Company and a young Algonquian man—left audience members keen to know what would happen next.

The actors (including several of the featured playwrights, portraying each other’s characters) delivered their lines with polish and panache, and it was clear, even without the benefits of costumes, props, sets and blocking, how entertaining these plays will be when fully staged. The moderators, notably Saghirah Shahid, Joseph Farag, and Taher Herzallah, clearly relished the task of relating to the playwrights and the performances and encouraging questions from the public. And audience members seized the opportunity not only to ask questions but to provide constructive comments, as when one suggested to Elsayigh that Melungeon heritage and history might be an interesting element to research as he continues to develop his play.

Nabra Nelson reading from Sana Wazwaz’s “Birthright Palestine.” Photo by Makeen Osman, courtesy of Kathryn Haddad and New Arab American Theatre Works.

In sum, the Showcase was a triumph on multiple levels. Unfortunately, though, not all of the plays attracted as wide an audience as they deserved. The Day 2 performances were generally well-attended, but there were a significant number of empty seats at some of the readings on Day 1 (perhaps Day 1 served to spark interest and word-of-mouth advertising within the local community, or perhaps the Palestinian-themed plays of Day 2 were just a stronger draw). Regardless, when these works appear on the stage in all their glory, their authors’ participation in the Showcase will undoubtedly have contributed to their success.

Katherine Hennessey is a 2020-21 Research Fellow with the National Endowment for the Humanities and a 2022 Global South Translation Fellow with Cornell University. From 2017 to early 2022 she served on the faculty of the American University of Kuwait, as Assistant and then Associate Professor of English, as well as Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She now serves as Associate Professor of Global Literature and Shakespeare at Wenzhou-Kean University. She is the author of Shakespeare on the Arabian Peninsula (Palgrave 2018) and of numerous articles and essays on Shakespeare and Irish, Gulf, and Yemeni theatre.

Arab Stages
Volume 14 (Spring 2023)
©2023 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

Book Reviews Editor: George Potter

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, Juan Recondo, Nada Saab, Asaad Al-Saleh, Torange Yeghiazarian.

Managing Editors: Melissa Flower Gladney and Juhyun Woo

Table of Contents:

“Indigenous Avant-Gardes”: The Shiraz Arts Festival and Ritual Performance Theory in 1970s Iran by Matthew Randle-Bent

Up There by Wael Kadour, Introduction by Edward Ziter

Baba written by Denmo Ibrahim, directed by Hamid Dehghani, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Decolonizing Sarah: A Hurricane Play written and directed by Samer Al-Saber, reviewed by George Potter

Layalina written by Martin Yousif Zebari, directed by Sivan Battat, reviewed by Sami Ismat

Mother Courage adapted and directed by Alison Shan Price, reviewed by Hassan Hajiyah

Playwright Showcase, New Arab American Theater Works, reviewed by Katherine Hennessey

Review of MUKHRIJĀT AL-MASRAḤ AL-MIṢRĪ (1990-2010): DIRĀSA SĪMIYŪṬĪQĪYAH [Female Egyptian Directors (1990-2010): A Semiotic Study], written by Hadia Abd El-Fattah, reviewed by Areeg Ibrahim

Review of Theaters of Citizenship: Aesthetics and Politics of Avant-Garde Performance in Egypt written by Sonali Pahwa, reviewed by Suzi Elnaggar

Review of Syrian Refugees, Applied Theater, Workshop Facilitation, and Stories: While They Were Waiting written by Fadi Skeiker, reviewed by Sonja Arsham Kuftinec

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