Seattle playwright Yussef El Guindi's comedy "Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World" gets its world premiere at ACT Theatre.
Call Yussef El Guindi a “political playwright” and he will refute that. That’s despite the fact that the nationally known prizewinning author, a Capitol Hill resident, has taken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the domestic war on terror, detainees at Guantánamo and other thorny subjects in his plays.
But the animated, articulate El Guindi insists, in a chat at a Seattle pub, “I never regard myself as a political playwright. I’m a citizen. I don’t have a party, an agenda, an ax to grind. I write about what’s going on around me, sifting for the kernel of truth, the human dynamic.”
Still, it may surprise some who know El Guindi’s work primarily through a play like the oft-staged “Back of the Throat” (about an Arab American hounded by U.S. government agents after 9/11) to learn that his latest, “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” is publicized as a “sexy” and “goofy” love story.
“Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World” begins its world-premiere run this weekend at ACT Theatre. ACT head Kurt Beattie was taken by it enough to give it three staged readings as the script evolved.
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“Yes, it’s a romantic comedy,” says El Guindi, with a ready laugh. “I didn’t know I had it in me!”
The story came to him out of the blue: “Sometimes you just hear snatches of dialogue in your head. I heard two people coming up the stairs, talking. I thought I’d follow them.”
One became the cabdriver Musa (played by Shanga Parker) who, like El Guindi, is an Egyptian immigrant to the U.S. The other is sassy Sheri (Carol Roscoe), an American waitress.
“The vividness of the individual characters was there immediately in the script,” Beattie says. “It’s able to conduct a positive examination of this difficult conversation between Muslim and Western cultures, and give you the feeling that human beings can solve some of these difficulties.”
As ever in El Guindi’s plays, humor is present. “It’s a comedy-of-manners situation, with cultural misunderstandings,” he says, then adds wryly, “But I don’t think people have to be from different countries to behave like they’re from different countries.”
More broadly, the play “is about the same thing all of my plays are about, in some way — the immigrant journey. It’s just part of me. I left Egypt at age 4, and my earliest memories are going with my mother to get an exit visa to go to England.”
“Since then I’ve been an immigrant everywhere I’ve lived. So I’m attuned to the outsider, the person who doesn’t fit in. But we all feel a little like a stranger in a strange land, don’t we? It’s the existential condition.”
Born into a prominent Egyptian family, El Guindi has lived in London, Paris, Cairo, and since coming to the U.S. (where he’s now a citizen), he’s been a vagabond, too. He studied playwriting at Carnegie-Mellon University, worked at theaters in San Francisco and Chicago, taught at Duke University in North Carolina.
But since moving to Seattle, he’s passed on teaching and other time-consuming work to focus on writing.
“It’s a very precarious existence,” he acknowledges. “But my feeling is just to write, write, write it all out now. Maybe in my mid-50s, I’ll be waiting tables, too!”
That’s unlikely. El Guindi says he’s got “eight or nine” plays to his credit. He’s been highly praised, and has won prizes, including the ACT New Play Award (for “Language Rooms”) and the 2010 Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award.
His scripts have been successfully produced Off Broadway, and by regional companies, including emerging Arab-American troupes.
In 2004, Seattle’s Theater Schmeater staged his riveting “Back of the Throat” and his barbed satire of Hollywood images of Arabs, “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes.”
There was one highly dramatic event the writer regrets missing: the recent Cairo protests and overthrow of Egypt’s strongman leader, Hosni Mubarak.
“I got home from visiting my family there, and 11 days later it started, ” he recalls. “History was happening and here I was in Seattle!”
The revolution, he feels, “had to happen. These dictators, they’re an anachronism … Unfortunately, the transformation into a real democracy will be very difficult. But at least it’s begun.”
El Guindi keeps close tabs on the Middle East. But as the new immigrant Musa hopes to someday be, he’s now at home in America.
“Eventually you make inroads into the main culture,” he says. “You broaden out. I don’t think Musa knows where he belongs at the start of the play. But he understands it better at the end.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org