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Greetings Theater Lovers,

This month I saw only one play; all the New York Cool writers and editors were simply overwhelmed when the Tribeca juggernaut came to town. You can still see our Tribeca Film Festival coverage (twenty-two reviews, five stories, interviews with Matthew McFadyen, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, etc.) in the New York Cool May 2006 Archives. In fact, you can read anything we have ever published in our archives section.


Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat

The play I did see, the Flea Theater’s production of Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat was a compelling piece of theater and a chance to look at the dark underbelly of our War on Terror and our much ballyhooed Department of Homeland Security. Back of the Throat was directed by Flea Theater founder, Jim Simpson (also Sigourney Weaver’s husband). It starred: Adeel Akhtar (Khaled); Bandar Albuliwi (Asfoor); Jamie Effros (Carl); Jason Guy ( Bartlett); Erin Roth (Beth, Ms. Shelly, Jean).

Here is a quote from their press releases:

“Produced throughout the US, this dark comedy about our rapidly eroding civil liberties won the 2004 Northwest Playwright's Competition, was an American Theater Critics Association/ Steinberg New Play Award nominee and was hailed by the Seattle Times as one of the Best of 2005. Back of the Throat begins with an innocuous Homeland Security investigation and quickly moves into a subversive discovery of fear, race, and the engine of suspicion. Following a heinous terrorist attack, an Arab-American writer is visited by two government officials. What begins as a friendly inquiry soon devolves into a chilling, full-blown investigation of his presumed ties to terrorists. At times surreal and comic, Back of the Throat examines the way in which facts, evidence and (mis)perceptions are used to distort the truth and how racial profiling impacts the relationship between the accusers and the accused.”

When we entered the theater, we were greeted by one of the characters, Khaled (played by Adeel Akhtar) who was wandering the hallway in his bathrobe. I am assuming that this was a directorial choice and it was a good one – we immediately got the feeling that we were actually entering someone’s home. We then sat down and saw the stage, a messy studio apartment – the kind of apartment inhabited by writers all over New York City.

And it was a story about a writer, an Arab American writer named Khaled (Akhtar) who is visited by two Homeland Security guys, Bartlett (played by Jason Guy) and Carl (played by Jamie Effros). Khaled has been implicated by some tenuous connections to a terrorist Asfoor (played by Bandar Albuliwi). It seems they used the same library and may have attended the same strip club one night. So, based on this evidence, two Homeland Security guys visit Khaled to collect evidence and interrogate him for his possible connections to a recent terrorist attack. During the interrogation, we see skillfully-directed fun flash backs to their visits with his former girlfriend, his librarian and a stripper - all played by Erin Roth. All of Ms. Roth’s characters have reinterpreted the reality of their relationship with Khaled, based on the information they now have that we were attacked by Arabs. Things that appeared innocuous before now appear sinister. Just who did Khaled greet in the park? Was there someone standing behind him in the library line? And just who was in the dimly lit lap dance room of the strip club that night?

The most disturbing thing about this play is how the agents try to determine whether Khaled is a terrorist by looking at his books and magazines; they attempt to find out who he is by what he reads. (They found his love of Playboy to be especially disturbing.) I am also a writer and I often joke that if my apartment were suddenly covered by a Pompeii-like volcano, archeologists would have an incredibly skewed idea of who I had been because I read everything. Here are some innocuous examples: I have shelves full of cook books and I have not cooked for ten years. I have stacks of fashion magazines and frumpy clothes. There are also shelves full of diet and exercise book and I …. well, you get the picture. And I am only telling you about the respectable books that line the shelves in my apartment. Like I said, I read everything. But in reality I am an incredibly dull nerd who should be of no interest whatsoever to Homeland Security or any self-appointed morality police.

All of the actors gave good performances, especially Adeel Akhtar as the maligned writer Khaled and Jamie Effros as the thuggish Homeland Security guy Carl. Erin Roth was sometimes funny (depending on her role) and always compelling in her three roles; she was only hampered by the awkwardness of having to deliver two of them with unschooled accents. The same goes for Jason Guy as Barlett; his character would have seemed more real if he had been directed to drop his fake Southern accent. But accent or not, it was obvious that Guy is a very talented actor. The Homeland Security guys came come across a little buffoonish with their phobias about pornography and literature in general. But perhaps this can be forgiven by the thought that if you are a an Arab American playwright in today’s United States (as is El Guindi), that may be exactly how the authorities appear to you.

Jim Simpson did a remarkable job of bringing this play to the stage and I highly recommend that you make the trip down to Tribeca to see it. Plus, the Flea is located in a fun area, surrounded by restaurants and bars. It is half a block away from the Tribeca Grand Hotel with its amazing lobby bar.

Back of the Throat plays Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:00PM. It closes on July 1 st.

Tickets are $20 - 212-352-3101 and www.ovationtix.com. The Flea Theater is located at 41 White Street in Tribeca.

I would also like to tell you about a film documentary about the random detention of Arabs after 9/11 - Alison Maclean and Tobiase Perse’s Persons of Interest. I reviewed this film back in 2004, just before it opened at Cinema Village during the Republican Convention. The documentary is now available through www.netflix.com and is well worth viewing. Here is a copy of my 2004 review.

"First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me." Martin Niemoller

I am from Texas, the same state as our First Cowboy, President George W. Bush. When I was in high school I attended a lecture at Southern Methodist University and heard Martin Niemoller. Niemoller was imprisoned by Hitler and spent eight years in prison, some of it at Dauchau. From then on, whenever he spoke he would always end with the above quote...."There was no one left to speak out for me." I really was not supposed to be there that night, we were in Dallas on a vacation and my parents heard he was speaking and wanted to attend. But like many accidental happenings, it had a profound affect on how I view life.

About a week ago, I went to see "Persons of Interest", a documentary about twelve Arabs (of the over five thousand arrested after 9/11), who were snatched off the streets of this our United States and held incommunicado, with no right to counsel, for up to twelve months. Each speaker, or group of speakers, was filmed in a bare room, furnished only with a bench, there they answered question from an unseen narrator. Each story was poignant, from the executive who was jailed because his son had a flight simulator and he had a used ticket to the World Trade Center observation deck, to the mother of three extremely rambunctious boys who was at her wits end trying to raise them without a father (her husband was deported).

Yes, we were attacked by Arabs, but we were attacked by specific Arabs with the intention to do us in, not the guys at the corner deli. Listening to the stories of these twelve men, it was impossible to not believe that most all of them had no ties to terrorists. Even the most cynical among us would have to admit that if they were terrorists, neither they not their families would have been willing to participate in a documentary about their experiences.

I was left with the horrible suspicion that our posse-in-power in Washington just decided it was time to haul in some "Injuns," and instructed their minions to grab the first Arabs they saw, on the off chance that they might know "something." Many of the detainees spoke of how they had come to America because they believed America was the land of the free, with opportunity for all, and how horribly delusioned they were to find out that they could be denied basic civil rights with hardly any outcry. The one adjective that came to mind to describe them is hurt, hurt because it happened and hurt because the rest of us did little to help. They all seemed bewildered, why couldn't people just see them and realize that they were just like us? But it did happen to "them" and it is continuing to happen to "them" and (to paraphrase Martin Niemoller), if we don't speak out now, in the end there may be no one left to speak out for us, and then we too may become "them."

Persons of Interest was produced by Lawrence Konner and directed by Alison Maclean and Tobiase Perse. It is being presented by the Documentary Campaign and screens with Through the Wire (a fascinating documentary about Australian protestors storming a detention center) and Getting Through to the President (a very funny documentary about New Yorkers using a payphone to call the White House comment line).

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