.Theater: Identity question

‘Our Enemies’ a gripping drama

By Charles Brousse

Problems of self-identity are woven throughout Our Enemies, Yussef El Guindi’s absorbing drama, which is currently receiving its West Coast premiere by Golden Thread Productions at San Francisco’s Thick House. It’s the latest of five plays by the Arab-American writer to be produced by Golden Thread, an under-appreciated 20-year-old company that specializes in Middle East-related works for the stage, and it further confirms the author’s standing as one of that region’s most eloquent new voices.

Behind the question of identity lies a shadowy, but perhaps even more divisive issue: The identity issue’s effect on day-to-day personal relationships in the affected communities. “Who speaks for me?” is the real core of El Guindi’s play. Who is the “authentic” Arab-American? Who is the apostate, willing to sell his soul for the seductive rewards of a capitalist-dominated society? Our Enemies’ subtitle, Lively Scenes of Love & Combat, hints at what is to come. Actually, there’s far more combat than love in El Guindi’s piece—most of it verbal, where the author’s punchy dialogue and sharp characterizations drive the story along at breathtaking  speed. But there are also a pair of physical encounters, one near the opening, the other at the end, that have a significant impact on the overall effect.

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The play is set in various Manhattan locales, effectively suggested by scenic designer Mikiko Uesugi’s use of a large white window-frame, through which Kevin August Landesman’s shifting video images can be seen as they are projected on an upstage scrim. Scene 1 takes us to a TV studio, where a popular young Arab-American writer named Mohsen (Kunal Prasad) is preparing  to be interviewed about his latest book by a typical commercial media personality (Dale Albright). When the latter leaves for a smoke, Gamal (James Asher), an unsuccessful novelist posing as a makeup technician, enters and begins to administer what he calls “tweaks” that in reality turn Mohsen into a repulsive clown. The two engage in increasingly hostile back-and-forth exchanges that revolve around whether Mohsen has betrayed his Middle Eastern heritage until …

I won’t go any further because what happens next is a surprise twist that sets the tone for everything that follows. In order, we meet sleek, blond literary agent Olivia (Annemaria Rajala), a queenly character who holds her subject’s fortunes (and other favors) in her well-manicured hands. Mohsen, it seems, is among her favorites because he plays “the game” by her rules, but she runs into stubborn resistance from Gamal’s girlfriend Noor, another promising writer (beautifully portrayed by Denmo Ibrahim). Golden Thread’s splendid cast is rounded out by Munaf Alsafi as kindly old Sheikh Alfani, the local iman who sends his rebellious son Hani (Salim Razawi) off to relatives in Egypt hoping he’ll return shorn of his “smartass” attitude. The production is ably directed by company founder Torange Yeghiazarian.

Except for an unfortunate melodramatic ending, Our Enemies is a gripping excursion through the minefield of relationships that are shaped by conflicting rigid beliefs and agendas. It also exposes the futility of using group affiliation to decide that basic question, “Who speaks for me?” Who is a “genuine” Arab? A “genuine” Muslim? Or, for that matter, a “genuine” American? Answers don’t come easily. In this era of extreme divisive politics, it is well to remember that identity is a subjective concept, and to pretend otherwise is to invite calamity. “We have to stop hurting each other,” declares an exasperated Mohsen near the end of Our Enemies. Brave words. If anyone wanted to bet on that happening, I’d wager that El Guindi would be ready to offer them odds.

NOW PLAYING: Our Enemies runs through November 20 at the Thick House, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco; 415/626-4061; goldenthread.org.


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