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Next Act’s ‘Back of the Throat’ finds absurdity in fear

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Arab-American writer Khaled receives a visit from two government agents. Their friendly demeanor turns aggressively suspicious as the pair attempts to connect Khaled to the worst terrorist act ever to take place on U.S. soil.

Such is the stuff of disturbing absursity in the hands of Yussef El Guindi, an Arab-American playwright whose 2004 play Back of the Throat launches the 2015–16 season for Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre. 

Described by American Theatre Magazine as “the Patriot Act as dramatized by David Mamet and Franz Kafka,” El Guindi’s play ratchets the fear and paranoia following the attacks to an absurd level, in which even everyday objects littering Khaled’s messy apartment become part of his supposed involvement in the terrorist plot. The proceedings also offer a unique view of the event from the other side of the 9/11 equation, according to director Edward Morgan.

“It’s a mix of comedy and theatricality,” Morgan says of the Next Act production, a Milwaukee premiere. “It’s funny, but then it’s scary, too. Given what’s still going on in the world, it’s also incredibly topical.”

An absurdist approach in the face of such overwhelming tragedy and its oppressive government aftermath is not without theatrical precedent, Morgan explains. For example, during the Soviet occupation of the former Czechoslovakia, writer and dissident Václav Havel (later president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic) criticized the ruling powers via his absurdist plays, one of the only outlets available.

In Back of the Throat, whose protagonist is more American than Arab, the scenario charts a course of inquiry that becomes ridiculous to the point of humorous while never losing its deadly potential, Morgan says.

“The point of the humor is to show the absurdity of how paranoia distorts our pursuit for the truth,” Morgan says. “It distorts it so much that it is entertaining while driving home the point. But the balance in the play has to be maintained between what’s funny and what’s serious, and that’s our job.”

Even the play’s title embraces the absurdity of the events. Back of the Throat refers to the difficulty one of the agents has in pronouncing the “K” in Khaled’s name. It also stands, however briefly, as a metaphor for the agent’s inability to understand the protagonist’s nature or his thoughts.

“The great thing about the play is that it’s not at all like a political essay,” Morgan says. “It’s a close-up on one guy in his apartment and his interaction with agents who are both scary and buffoons. In the end it’s about the people, as all good plays are.”

The experiences of the play’s author are similar to those of its protagonist, if only in the social context in which both operate. 

Born in Egypt, El Guindi grew up in London, eventually pursuing a graduate degree in playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He later served as playwright-in-residence at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, for seven years before settling down in Seattle, where he worked as a poet, actor and filmmaker before deciding to write plays full time.

The act of becoming a U.S. citizen in 1996 concentrated his focus on issues of Arab-American identity, El Guindi told Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater in 2010. Wrestling with such issues gave him a more focused approach and an enduring context for his plays, which include Language Rooms and Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes. Those plays, too, trade on humor to support more serious social themes surrounding the Arab-American experience.

“I think my laughter stems from the fact that most of my writing revolves around matters of fitting in, identity, how one is perceived, how one perceives others,” El Guindi said. “The fact that I’m dealing with matters that are perceived to be fraught and political doesn’t take away from the fact that, essentially, my concerns are no different from a high school student wondering which table he should sit at during lunch.”

The social undercurrent carries through to Back of the Throat, which Morgan says gives the play both an accessibility and importance that should sit well with Milwaukee audiences.

“Intellectually, the message is an inside look at how fear distorts from the perspective of the person being feared.” Morgan adds. “You know how people laugh and are scared on a roller-coaster ride? The effect of the play is something like that.”

ON STAGE 

Next Act Theatre’s production of Yussef El Guindi’s Back of the Throat runs Oct. 1–25 at the 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. For more information and tickets, dial 414-278-0765 or visit nextact.org.

Next Act’s New Season

Back of the Throat kicks off Next Act Theatre’s 2015-16 season with a scintillating look at an Arab-American caught in the absurd context that followed the 9/11 attacks. Other productions this season follow their own unique paths in examining the human experience.

Next Act enters the holiday season with John Kishline’s unSilent Night, a Next Act world premiere about a Christmas Eve 1954 confrontation between a disk jockey and an intruder at a small Milwaukee radio station during which each discovers what it’s like to be alone. The holiday production runs Nov. 12 to Dec. 6.

A diverse, interactive kaleidoscope of personal testimony and social tension drive Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a powerful retelling of the riots and unrest that rocked Los Angeles after the police officers charged in the Rodney King beating were found not guilty. The play, which dramatizes dozens of author Anna Deavere Smith’s interviews with participants and witnesses, strikes at the heart of racism in America. It runs Jan. 28 to Feb. 21.

Tears and laughter are promised for the Milwaukee premiere of Motherhood Out Loud, a project conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein with contributions from 14 American playwrights. The play, which runs April 7 to May 1, offers some telling and insightful riffs on what it means to be a mother in ways that span and unite generations of mothers and their children.

— M.M.

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