“Writing a theater play about trauma makes me want to dry out”

These two plays are about characters from the Middle East. Is this typical of your job? The family drama I just finished is about Irani...


These two plays are about characters from the Middle East. Is this typical of your job?

The family drama I just finished is about Iranians in Southern California. Everything else was shot in Iran. What if I show up with one piece on three white girls? Anyone wanna do it? Even if it’s really good? Sometimes I worry I’m the good Middle Eastern guy. When the Muslim ban [Donald J. Trump’s 2017 executive order that at first barred nationals from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering America] was adopted, I felt a change. Middle Eastern artists have been knocking on the door for a very long time. People finally started to listen.

So you’re worried about being typecast?

If all that comes out of my work is just my stories about people in the Middle East, I don’t think I would ever be upset. But there’s always the worry that I’m in the people of color niche in a season. It’s starting to feel a bit icky. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop writing about Middle Eastern people until it doesn’t feel special. It’s special right now to have – especially in “Wish You Were Here” – these Iranian girls on stage. It’s a bit about politics, but it’s mostly about them trying not to fall asleep on a couch. Maybe it won’t seem special in 30 years, and that’s fine too.

You said “Wish You Were Here” is for your mother. Who is “English” for?

“English” is for me. I had to write it down. I wrote it as my thesis. I was really angry that year. After the travel ban, I put my fingers in the dish for two years and wrote “English” because I was furious at the anti-immigrant rhetoric. I just wanted to scream a little into the void. It’s huge to learn a different language, it’s huge to give up this ability to express yourself fully, even if you have a perfect command of the language.

I was about to graduate. I wanted to be a writer, and it’s probably also because of my own insecurities that I would never have the words to say what I wanted.

What does it mean to present these plays to a majority white, majority American audience?

The most meaningful responses for me were the first generation Middle Eastern kids coming to see “English”. I feel like they are totally into it with me. Our white audience is tricky. There are laughs sometimes where I don’t think there should be laughs. Accents make you laugh. And it’s really uncomfortable some nights. I think the room sort of takes care of that. The pain is so real at the end of the play that I don’t think anyone is laughing. But it’s not easy.

Why did you write these plays as comedies?

I am not a political writer. I am not a public intellectual. I am, deep down, someone who likes a cheap laugh. I would throw myself off this booth to make you laugh.

“English” and “Wish You Were Here” are sad. “Wish You Were Here” is more obviously sad. But writing a play about trauma makes me want to gasp. I just think it’s so flattening. It doesn’t help people see us in three dimensions. I can not do it. And I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think that’s how life works.

Politics enters the room, and you’re still trying to make your best friend laugh, or you’re still bored of spending your time on the couch – it’s all happening at the same time. Do people think that women in the Middle East are huddled under a chador, like, lamenting our oppressions? The pain is different from what we think it looks like and the joy is still there. The kindness is still there. There are so many laughs through it.

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