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In the plays of Yussef El Guindi, the Egyptian-born Seattle writer, the interpersonal implications of cross-cultural exchange are no less complex than the political ones. Characters from different backgrounds fumble for common ground, and the results are sometimes hilarious, sometimes fraught — and often, both.
El Guindi has developed a fruitful collaboration with ACT Theatre over the past decade, with productions including “Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World,” “Threesome” and “People of the Book.” His latest, “Hotter Than Egypt,” opens Feb. 3, with previews starting Jan. 28.
El Guindi is a member of ACT’s core company, and the continued relationship with the theater and artistic director John Langs, who directs “Hotter Than Egypt,” has been a major psychological support in an industry where you’re essentially a door-to-door salesman trying to get your work staged, El Guindi said.
“Hotter Than Egypt,” produced by ACT in association with the Bay Area’s Marin Theatre Company, is another tale of the tenuous relationship between outsiders and insiders, as Jean and Paul (Jen Taylor, Paul Morgan Stetler) — American tourists in Cairo — involve their Egyptian tour guides Maha and Seif (Naseem Etemad, Wasim No’Mani) in their marital drama.
We spoke with El Guindi about the origins of the play and how it fits in with some of his recurring themes. Excerpts of the conversation, edited for length and clarity, follow.
I know you’ve been working on “Hotter Than Egypt” for some time. How has the play evolved since you began writing it?
I began a series of plays after the Egyptian revolution in 2011. I think I began this in 2013. I was like, 50 pages into it, and then I thought, “You know, I’m not sure this revolution is going to pan out.” I follow my instincts, and my instincts told me to just hold on.
You know, it’s a tricky thing being a playwright, because you’re not a reporter. I am somebody who engages with the world around him. And my domestic dramas tend to be political dramas and vice versa, but I have to be careful. I know that the play will probably get done two or three years after I write it, so I can’t make references that in three years’ time, people will be going, “What is he talking about?” So it’s trying to extract the universal elements or something in the story that I feel speaks to a larger issue.
[“Hotter Than Egypt”] kept bugging me over the years. I kept thinking, “I think there’s a play there.” I think in 2018, I picked it up and I reread what I’d written, and I thought, it’s as much about these people and specifically about the journey of one of the characters as it is about the context in which it is set. The play was always going to be about the personal revolutions of these individual characters. I just focused on these four characters and the [Egyptian] revolution kind of went into the background.
I’ve written plays, I’ve put them in drawers and had no interest in going back to them. But this particular play kept going, “Just take a look at it again.” So I did.
“Hotter Than Egypt” had one developmental production in Denver in 2020 right before the pandemic. What was it like seeing it on stage for the first time?
When you have a new play, and you hear it for the first time, there’s a shock. It’s something that you held to your chest very closely, and now you’re exposing it. It can be a wonderful electric feeling. It can also immediately make you go, “OK, that’s going on way too long.”
If I have the luxury, I will write a play, put it away and come back to it six months later. And of course, with this play, I put it away for many years. Time is your best critic. It really allows you to see something objectively. And then when actors come and the director comes, that’s another layer of removal from the text, so you’re able to stand back and see it without the creative mind plastering all the cracks over.
This play seems to return to a frequent interest of yours: power dynamics that maybe aren’t exactly what they appear at first glance. What’s your attraction to stories like that?
I mean, I don’t know that I have an agenda when I start writing. One of the pleasures of writing for me is to discover what is it that is impelling me to engage with these characters. I think invariably, people who write return to certain themes. I don’t think some people do it consciously. I’m not consciously returning to explore anything.
One of the things about this story that I think drew me back, was that I have always wanted to write about tourists in Egypt. I used to go back every year, for a month, month and a half. And, you know, I’d see tourists and I’d wonder how they’re experiencing Egypt, and whether they’re enjoying themselves. I do write about outsiders, and I do write about fish out of water. I write about people who have to adjust to new cultures, for obvious reasons, given my experience. That always sort of draws me, writing about immigrants, and tourists are temporary immigrants in a way.
People who’ve grown up in one culture, one setting — you just take certain things for granted, from the language to customs to gestures to things from the minute to the large. And when you leave that comfort zone and move into an unfamiliar territory, suddenly that’s all up for grabs.
That’s a great summation of a lot of your work: These minutiae that can be the trigger to bring up much larger underlying issues. That’s obviously dramatically fertile territory for you.
It absolutely is. In our own lives, just think of the times we felt very embarrassed, or we kick ourselves for saying such and such because we misread a room, and how that can become a source of shame and something you drag up in your mind and think about years later.
[An unfamiliar culture has] morals and values and dos and don’ts and the etiquette of interactions and all that. For somebody who knows none of that, [they’re] bumping up against all those elements.
What’s your approach to genre? Many of your plays have scenes that can seem like they’re comedic, but suddenly become something else entirely.
I have set out to write a few comedies, but most of my work is situational. As I follow these characters trying to navigate an awkward situation, I think humor just naturally arises because, you know, we stumble in our attempt to communicate with each other, and that stumbling is a great source of humor.
I’m very aware and alive to the natural awkwardness that people have around each other, having had to negotiate going from Egypt to England and having to adjust, and then going back to Egypt and having to adjust, and coming to America. I think it’s relatable to everybody, even to anybody who hasn’t experienced that immigrant experience. I think people can relate to being sort of a stranger in a situation and having to awkwardly try and fit in. To me, that’s where the humor is, and the seriousness, because it can change on a dime. One minute, you’re laughing, and the next can be serious — as in life, as in anything.
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