Queer Representation in the United States
Nabra Nelson: Salam Aleykum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North Africa, or MENA, theatre from across the region.
Marina Johnson: I'm Marina.
Nabra Nelson: I'm Nabra.
Marina Johnson: We're your hosts.
Nabra Nelson: Our name Kunafa and Shay invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how: with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.
Marina Johnson: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you'll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA Theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.
Nabra Nelson: In our third season, we highlight queer MENA and SWANA (or Southwest Asian North African) theatremakers and dive into the breadth of queerness present in their art.
Marina Johnson: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.
In the first season of episode three, we interrogate what it means to have a queer MENA/SWANA season. With special guest Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, we ask difficult questions about how to frame this season in a way that does not tokenize artists. What does it mean to be defined as “queer” versus to define yourself as queer? When is identity-specificity harmful versus helpful? Join us in a robust conversation that serves as the foundation for this season's framing.
Nabra Nelson: Adam Ashraf Elsayigh was born in Cairo, Egypt to parents who were reluctantly doctors. When soon thereafter, Adam’s parents relocated the family to Dubai, Adam grew up in a religious Muslim household with American cable television, going to a British school in a Gulf state where over 90% of the population were migrant workers. This upbringing at the cross-section of cultures is at the core of the artist Adam is.
Today, Adam is a writer, theatremaker, and dramaturg who writes and develops plays that interrogate the intersections of queerness, immigration, and colonialism. Adam’s plays (including Drowning in Cairo, Revelation, Memorial, and Jamestown/ Williamsburg) have been developed and seen at New York Theater Workshop, The Lark, The Tisch School of the Arts, The LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, and Golden Thread Productions. Adam is a fellow at Georgetown University's Laboratory for Global Performance and an Alliance/Kendeda Award Finalist. He holds a BA in Theatre with an emphasis in Playwriting and Dramaturgy from NYU Abu Dhabi and is an MFA Candidate in Playwriting at Brooklyn College.
Adam, we are so excited to have you here. We have you here for a couple of reasons. First of all, because we love you, but secondly, because we're really excited to engage in critique and framing of the season with you, as this is our first episode (of season three). We've always planned on inviting you to start the season off, but originally we were framing this episode as a time to, as we had put it earlier in the previous event description, "unpack dated tropes, unpack what it meant to be queer SWANA characters on stage, and discuss what the future of representation can and should look like in the United States" to quote ourselves. Then you thankfully sparked a conversation that Marina and I had talked about when crafting this season, which has to do with whether or not we should have a queer season at all on this podcast.
There are a lot of reasons we were considering this, and you brought a lot more nuance and personal experience to this conversation, which we're really thankful for. Some of the reasons we were wondering about doing this podcast were the questions of: will enough folks feel safe speaking so publicly about their queer identities? It's difficult enough trying to capture the diversity of the MENA world. How do we capture the diversity of queer identities in one season? Should we just include queer folks in other seasons like we've continued to do instead of doing a whole focus(ed) season? Most pertinent to this conversation, is this how artists want to be framed? Are we putting people in a box by framing this season as a queer season? Are queer artists too often defined solely by their queerness without a greater understanding of the nuances and intersections of their art?
Those are some of the questions we're excited to talk to you about today, and I know you have a lot of thoughts. So I'm going to stop intro-ing and stop talking and asking a thousand different questions and just see what are your thoughts on this. Please jump in.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Hello, friends. Adam Elsayigh. As always, I have too many thoughts. Excited to be here with both of you. Yeah. My name's Adam. I'm a playwright, dramaturg, theatremaker, theatre producer, theatre fan, obsessive, I don't know, and also a dear friend of both of you, obviously. I guess this is a conversation… It's one of those conversations that really are emblematically about representation and also not about representation in the sense that I've found that in the last, well, honestly for... I want to say I've been in the United States as a theatremaker for basically my whole adult life, so the last seven, eight years or so, post-college life essentially.
In that time, I never came into becoming a theatremaker to specifically say something about my queerness or because I was queer. There's always the question of how did your queerness influence every part of your life? But in the most basic sense... I think there are more nuanced and academic ways to say the statement I'm about to say, but in the most basic sense of it is when I Google my name right now, the first 15 links that come up have the word “gay” in them. I'm like, what's that about? I didn't ask for this. A lot of my writing does pertain to queer themes. It has queer characters, but it's also not necessarily about queerness or struggling to come out. The worlds I create have queerness in them in the same way that my life has queerness in it, and that influences how I move through the world and how my characters move through the world, but it's not the thing that defines their existence necessarily. Obviously that differs from one play to another.
There's also this idea of what is a queer play and what is not a queer play? When people are like, what is your non-queer play? I'm like, what does that mean? I wrote all these plays. They all came from my subjectivity. The way I think about the world is queer because that's who I am and that informs all I do, including when I'm writing straight characters or not. I'm thinking about this from the sense of, if I was theoretically a straight white man and a playwright, what would people talk to me about my plays? What would they ask? Would they ask about the nature of the work? Would they ask who the characters were? What were the themes I'm trying to explore? What are the forms I'm trying to experiment with?
I've been, frankly, in the last six months after being invited to so many things that are like queer SWANA, queer Arab, queer immigrant, I was like, you know what? I'm kind of done accepting saying I'm going to come to these things. Then literally a week later, Marina reached out to me and I was like, oh, but this is Marina and Nabra and I can have this conversation with them. I almost was going to be like, I love you guys, but I don't know that I want to be on this season. Invite me to the next season. I was like, I'm actually going to explain myself. Then that sparked this whole conversation. This conversation that had been very internal with me and that I had made all the decisions on my own, I started having with Marina and I was like, oh, this itself would be an interesting conversation for the podcast. I am delighted to be here with both of you.
Marina Johnson: Yes, and we're so excited and happy, Adam, that you brought this up because we were wondering, okay, well what does this mean? As Nabra said, here's some of our questions around this. There's this really Western framing of queerness that really essentializes personalities to this characteristic, which we wouldn't do for other things that are part of our lives. There's this essentializing of queerness and there are these Western conventions of coming out, or as we've seen, a lot of representation of trauma around queerness. I think that as we're expanding outside of these things, then people wonder, okay, well what does this mean? When I say people, I'm often talking about these theatre canons or when we're doing season planning, there's this diversity check of, okay, we're checking off these boxes. Great, I think we should. I'm glad that there's more diversity in some of these season plannings, but then it's this essentializing of queerness and what does queer mean in any context and how does this affect larger conversations?
Anyway, we're really grateful to dig into this with you, and we appreciate that you were like, I'm actually just really not interested in having the same recycled conversation over and over. That's one of the reasons that I think I like your work too. It's not just that it's quote "queer work," but how are you as a playwright looking at the world based on all of the things that you bring to the table and what conversations are you interested in having? I want to be in a room where those conversations are happening because you're always asking questions. And that's what I want theatre to do. I don't want theatre to answer questions for me. I want it to start asking new.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Yeah. Thank you. Like I said, it frankly has, I've been on... I won't name names, but I feel like if you stalk me, you can find this information on your own, but I have been on ten to fifteen panels in the last year where the same nine talking points came up between five gay people. It's almost like we're rehearsed, or we have a prep call. I'm like, why are we even having a prep call? I had the same conversation with... and I'm sure some of the people that these conversations were with are going to be in your season, and they're all dear friends that I love, but I feel like we keep having the same conversation.
I write plays with queer characters where no one says the word gay, ever. It's not that I'm actively avoiding it, but I think what queerness looks like... we have a very specific idea of what it means to check a box and say something is queer, and I'm interested in where queerness is murky or where you can look at a character and be like, is this queer? What does it mean to be queer, in the sense of it challenges you versus reaffirms your idea of this is what I should think as a liberal theatregoer in America in 2023.
I don't know if it's too early in the episode to bring up specific works, but I'll talk about Jamestown/Williamsburg, which is frankly the reason that I felt like I could really have this conversation properly with both of you, because recently in Minneapolis, Nabra, you read the lead character in a short excerpt reading that we did in Minneapolis. Marina, you directed a workshop of it in, I want to say, December of last year. To me, that is very quintessentially what I mean when I say here's a play with eight characters that are mostly queer. One or two of them refer to themselves as queer explicitly, but most of them are across time periods or across cultural backgrounds. They are processing what it means to be queer in different ways and finding themselves being connected through that.
No one's going to walk out of that play and be like, this is a play about how gay people are dealing with being gay. Although it is that, but it is also about so many other things. It is about what it means to be an American, what it means to be an immigrant, what it means to deal with indigeneity. How do you interact? Why do people choose one partnership or one marriage, or one relationship over another? To me, my queerness in my life is something that intersects with how I think about all these questions, and that's what I'm interested in. I'm not just interested in walking around and telling everyone to accept me because I'm gay.
I think there is value in being three steps behind sometimes.
Nabra Nelson: Yeah. I love Jamestown/Williamsburg as an example, largely because I love the play, but also because it's extremely hard to put into a box. Exactly as you're saying, it's got all of these very interesting intersectional identities from various different cultural backgrounds, different manifestations of queer identity, and then it's also this historical and also surrealist or ghost story narrative. There's magical elements; there's really real historical elements. It's really an exciting play to look at because it's so difficult to define in, I don't know, one checkbox essentially. That brings me also to go back and ask how you talk about yourself as an artist. How do you define your art? Can you talk more about these forms and themes that you're wanting to explore? I remember in Minneapolis you articulated what you're trying to do with Jamestown/Williamsburg and it was so interesting and so nuanced. I'm wondering, if you had complete control over your narrative, how would you want others to talk about your art or how are you working to create a narrative around your art?
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Yeah, thank you for that. I think I often anchor, when I'm writing an artistic statement, I often anchor it in who am I writing this for? I'm writing theatre for folks who typically... I grew up in between Dubai and Egypt. Like everywhere, like most parts of the world outside of Western Europe and the United States, when you go to the movies as a little kid, a few of the movies are going to be from the area of the world you're from. Then the other half of the movies are probably going to be American movies. You go into the movie, you know you're going to watch a Christmas family, a family that is celebrating Christmas, and there's a maple tree or there's a ski lake in Alaska, or they might be in New Orleans or whatever, but you're always going to miss something about the world or you're going to misunderstand something about the world.
I remember literally the movie Fargo with Francis McDormand from the 90s. That was a movie I watched, which is really weird because in retrospect, it's a really problematic movie about a man kidnapping and gaslighting his wife. That was a movie I watched a bunch of times on VHS as a child. I was really intrigued by the visuals. I was intrigued by what it was doing. I was intrigued by parts of the story that I understood as an eight-year-old watching this very adult movie, but I never understood it fully. If there was a message that this movie was trying to give me, there were so many layers of cultural translation and cultural mistranslation happening. There was always something cryptic about... and I think that Americans are actually very, I guess unlucky or I feel like they're missing out on something in that we watch film and TV and theatre in this context with the sense of this is stuff that was made for you.
To me, I want to make theatre that is... there is something there that... for the people who have historically who have had to navigate watching media with these layers of mistranslation where the culture you are watching on stage is typically not your own. I want to subvert that. For example, I remember Samer Al-Saber, who's a dear mentor, and I believe one of your academic supervisors as well, Marina's advisor, who is a dear friend and who wrote a review for Drowning in Cairo after its world premiere last year in San Francisco, told me that as a Palestinian Canadian American person in the Bay Area who grew up in Egypt adjacent and see and understand what it means to be middle class in Cairo, he had never imagined that he would see that rendered on stage, on a US stage, without having to translate itself for a US audience.
To me, when he said that, I was like, that's what I want my work to do. I want my work to make people who've had their experience not typically be represented as it is in that way, have that moment. On the other hand, I want people for whom theatre is traditionally made to have to experience the world the way I did as a child. Meaning, no, you actually don't get to understand everything. This is not going to be culturally translated for you. This is not because I'm punishing you or because I think you suck, but actually because I think there is value in being three steps behind sometimes. I feel bad for people who don't get to experience that more often. That was a very long-winded answer. I apologize.
Marina Johnson: No, but it's an amazing answer. I appreciate, Adam, what you're talking about with shifting the center. You, I feel like, had the experience, as you're describing, these movies that you watched of, you're welcome to watch this movie, but not the experience of this is designed with you in mind. You're now creating things and designing things in mind to shift the center to move plays for people who haven't gotten to experience this world and this narrative, even though these narratives have existed for a while. You're breaking out of these boxes. It reminds me a lot of, when we talk about representation for SWANA work in general. After 9/11, there were all of these plays that were like, no, Arabs are people. No, they're not terrorists. Then that shifted to, no, actually we're fully fleshed people who can be problematic and who can do all of these things. I feel like we're hitting or we're past that point now also here with queer representation is that it's not actually just this one thing. It's all of these things. It's designing things for whole humans, for whole experiences, and not just designing it for this center area. I just really appreciate the way that you articulated all of that, and also sharing the conversation you had with Samer, who we’ll link his review of Drowning in Cairo here. I thought first of all, Drowning in Cairo is a beautiful text, and the way that Samer wrote about it is really lovely and I think a way of just also referencing past episodes we've had of culturally important and responsible and beautiful critique within this world, having work that's reviewed by people who understand the significance of this plan of the work that you're making. That was my long response there.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Yeah. I think the heart... and I really do mean it. I'm not facetious at all when I say it's not that I want people to feel in any way punished or to feel alienated because the work is not designed for them. It's more that truly and genuinely, when I was that child watching Fargo, I did not feel that I was missing something. I did not feel disappointed in that I was missing something. I just enjoyed dealing with the work on the basis that it was giving me, and that's okay. I feel like I wish people sat with ambiguity or sat with not knowing more. I feel like if we all understood that we don't know about the world as much as we think we do, we would all be better people.
Marina Johnson: Yes. I have so many places where I feel like this conversation can go next, but I'm wondering if as we're talking about this and the way that you describe the narrative that you want to have over yourself as an artist, where otherwise you said when you Google yourself the word gay comes up in all of the top hits, I was wondering if you could share more about some of the things you're working on now just to give folks a different or a larger sense of what you're currently doing.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Yeah. I am currently in the process of writing a commission for Golden Thread, Sahar Assaf, who directed the world premiere of Drowning in Cairo and who's a dear friend and collaborator herself. Recently, while we were in the process of developing the world premiere of that play, I was starting to become enamored and invested in telling another story of the life of Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who is a very high profile political prisoner in Egypt today and who has been incarcerated for much of the last decade in Egypt. I have some background with Verbatim Theatre, Theatre of the Real, and Documentary Theatre through my play Memorial and through my training. I read his book that was anthologized and publicized early in 2022 or maybe late 2021 actually. I was starting to think of what it would mean to create an adaptation of that. Golden Thread commissioned this piece, so I'm currently developing it in collaboration with dramaturg Salma Zohdi, who has been incredible.
It's been definitely stretching my abilities and skills and talents in that it is a play about the revolution, but it's also about legacies of family. It's not verbatim like Memorial, which was about the Christchurch Mosque shootings in New Zealand, but it is also based on interviews with Alaa's family members. It's also being now part of an international campaign that is advocating for the release of a prisoner, and thinking about the applied theatre elements and impact of work is somewhat different in that it somewhat different from my last theatre of the real, verbatim piece Memorial in that it is something that is ongoing as opposed to this piece that was memorializing an event and a tragedy that had already occurred in a specific way.
Marina Johnson: Yeah. You're the one who turned me onto the book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, and I was so moved when I read it, and I'm so excited for this commission process to see when this play will, I don't know, get to be heard by folks, because you're right. This is ongoing.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Then beyond that, I've also been developing a couple of projects for film and TV. Currently they're on pause because of the WGA strike, but generally I'm developing a few pieces. One that is about... It's a YA Dramedy series that is about my time at NYU Abu Dhabi and another that is more of a 30-minute comedy that is about queer nightlife venues and their intersection with substance abuse in New York.
Nabra Nelson: I'm so excited for all of your projects, Adam. You're just so amazing. Everyone, look up Adam's things, travel to his premieres.
Marina Johnson: Yeah, and we'll link info here too in the transcript.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Oh my God, stop. I'm so embarrassed.
Nabra Nelson: We are going to see you on all the streaming services very soon, but also, and as you talk about your work, also makes me think about... and especially your commission with Golden Thread, it makes me think about these spaces for MENA and SWANA artists that have been created and in some way the parallel with queer spaces, queer artist spaces. I've found a lot of support and solidarity in being able to have a community of MENA artists nationally who are really focusing on uplifting our work and our voices like Golden Thread. I see these pros and cons of being defined in that way because a lot of us are put into this MENA or SWANA artist box and only asked to do work focused on our cultures and only invited to those panel discussions.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Yeah. Look, like I said, I don't want to write perfect characters. I'm not a perfect person by any means myself. I will say that after my first world premiere, I'm in my mid to late 20s at this point, my first world premiere happening at a SWANA company, my two or three biggest affiliations being with queer theatres. I want to give a big, big, big shout out to Torange, to Sahar, to the folks at Silk Road Rising, Jamil, many of whom are queer themselves, but I feel very honored to be a part, to be in any way benefiting from and a part of and supported by that legacy. At the same time, I found myself speaking with my representation being, I feel like I'm in a corner in a way where I'm like, what does it mean? Is my work only appealing to these demographics? I don't write necessarily for only Arab audiences or only queer audiences, and yet it feels like that's a fear about what it means if you're read as the gay playwright or the gay Egyptian artist, and what does that mean?
Nabra Nelson: Yeah. How do you think about the balance between those pros and cons? Thinking about both that MENA/SWANA identity and queer identity, as well as the intersection of the two. Is there such a thing as a queer SWANA box?
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: I really think there is. I remember when I was in college feeling like I was the only... oh my God, I'm gay and Arab and I make theatre. I must be the only one in the world. Now I feel like there's twenty of us, and that's cool, but again, I feel like we're all friends or have opinions about each other and we all hang out in the same spaces and we're supported by the same theatres and we show up in the same panels and it's like, that's great. I love all these people. I love their work. I'm glad their work exists. First of all, I want all of us to be on bigger stages, and I want all of us to be in spaces that are not just "for us or to support us," but I also want to hear what each of these twenty people love to fucking do outside of being queer, Arab theatre people, or SWANA people.
Nabra Nelson: Absolutely. That's a really great way to say it. It is a box. Absolutely. I think that the affinity spaces and all of the artistic spaces that are really focusing on queer work, SWANA work, and then also the intersection of the two, which I'm seeing more and more, which is exciting. It's so important to uplift and create that community, but that needs to not be the end all be all.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Yeah. That's why when you guys were doing this, I was like, that's great. Now you're curating this as such. What would it mean to talk to however many people you're going to talk to in the coming weeks and months and talk about… not talk about everything but their queerness. We're not actively avoiding talking about our queerness, but what would it mean to not put our queerness at the center of who we are and every conversation we're having about ourselves? If it comes up and emerges as such, it does, but it doesn't have to be.
Nabra Nelson: We're really thinking about how we frame these conversations to talk about the wholeness of artists, while also especially illuminating for folks who are, their whole life isn't being queer SWANA, which is a lot of folks, how do we illuminate the complexity of what artists who are queer and SWANA are thinking about and discussing and trying to uplift.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Absolutely. I'm interested in immigration and immigration policy and how is AI affecting our field and how does camp enter the YA series? I have all kinds of interests. Even if I'm talking about a project where queerness doesn't trickle into the two liner, the two sentence elevator pitch, inevitably, queerness trickles into everything I do. That's fine. I'm not trying to resist that, but I guess I think I'll tell this anecdote. When I was writing Memorial, the piece that I mentioned that was about the Christchurch Mosque shootings was originally conceived by my dearest and best friend in the world who is a white woman from Utah who grew up Mormon and who I met in Abu Dhabi when we were freshmen in college. After our first year out of college, she was very affected by this attack, and there were a variety of reasons pertaining to her own upbringing and her relationship to gun violence that made her especially... and her having spent all of her college life in Abu Dhabi that made her affected by this attack.
She told me that she was considering pursuing this project where she goes in the summer and sees if anybody's interested in interviewing a number of people, and interviewing and speaking with her and telling her about their experience after the media people had left, after the project's sensational period had ended. I told her that that feels incredibly meaningful and she went. Then as she went, she was asking me a lot of questions about Islam, reading a lot of books, doing a lot of research, sending me the interviews that she was recording because I was interested. I started helping her initially as a dramaturg. Then eventually I became interested enough in the project that we essentially came into a co-writer collaboration that we ironed out and discussed who was going to be doing what and how and why, and what was the rationale for each thing.
Now, what's interesting about all this is that a number of people who I've spoken with in the months that followed after we'd written a few drafts were like, so you did this blank, and this person is my roommate and dearest friend was like, did she bring you on board because it was problematic for her to write this? I'm like, wow. There's so many assumptions in that statement. One, you assumed I’m a Muslim, which I'm not. I've grown up in a Muslim household. I don't identify as Muslim in any way. I have not practiced Islam in maybe a decade. I think at this point, Ariana probably knows more about the religion than I do.
Two, you essentially made my value my identity and not the actual skill I brought to the table to our rehearsal process and the actual lens I have. That's kind of what I fear. What happens in that little anecdote I just gave is what I fear in every one of these. It's such a uniquely American problem because, the identity of it all, because if you go literally look at the Supreme Court hearings when they're discussing affirmative action right now, that is the underlying thing that people think when they talk about you through your identity. They're like, you have had this thing because of your identity. Because the underlying thing that I often sense, especially from well-meaning liberal white folks when they're talking to you through your identity is this idea of like, you're in the narrative because your story is important. Not you're in the narrative because you're just as good a writer as Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller or Tony Kushner. I'm like, no, I'm in the narrative because I'm really good at what I do and I work hard, not because you want your token Arab person to be here.
Marina Johnson: Yeah. There's a real flattening of your identity. There's this essentializing of anyone who has been in proximity to Islam is a scholar of that, which we wouldn't do to a Christian in the States, because we understand that there are different ways of being with Christianity.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Right. No one's walking around assuming that anybody who identifies as a Catholic or as an Evangelical knows every book of the King James Bible. No one's being quizzed on that.
That is literally what being queer means. Being queer is not being put in a box. It is about existing outside of categories. That is literally what queer theory is. It's about subverting categorical thinking. Then when people are putting queerness in a box, I'm like, you've missed the fucking point.
Nabra Nelson: It's so true, but it's absolutely true that I feel like sometimes I'm being quizzed on the Quran, and you're completely correct. Also, this resonates so much with me, especially when it comes to how I also approach playwriting. I always say that I am trying to explore and portray the complexity of identity, and that feels also a lot of what you have been articulating of putting people into this complex space, this complex world, and letting them live in that. It's so incredibly important to do that so that these essentialized ideas of what a given identity is are broken apart. As soon as there's a mixed race person on stage for instance, a mixed race character on stage, you can't put anyone in a box. As soon as there's a queer person on stage as well, I believe you can't put them in a box because I'm thinking more and more recently about queerness as a way of being, taking queer meaning strange, meaning not whatever the norm is.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: That is literally what being queer means. Being queer is not being put in a box. It is about existing outside of categories. That is literally what queer theory is. It's about subverting categorical thinking. Then when people are putting queerness in a box, I'm like, you've missed the fucking point.
Marina Johnson: Wait, I've been waiting to quote bell hooks this entire time. Can I do it? "Queer, not as being about who you're having sex with, though, that can be a dimension of it, but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it, and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live." I love that hooks quote because I feel like it is so encompassing of actually, we can't flatten anything. You can't essentialize.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Oh, I love that so much. I've never heard that before. That's incredible.
Nabra Nelson: That's such a great quote. Exactly. I'm so excited that queerness in this generation and the next generation is much more centered in a way of being instead of in sexuality, even though sexuality is and can be a part of that. It's so interesting that queerness has become a box, as you've articulated. While by its definition, it is the breaking of boxes, and I don't really know how to reconcile that or how to spread that.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: It's also this thing about saying you're queer and thus you have a right to own something or to acknowledge something or that you have the authority to decide who can play this and who can't play this and who has that experience and who doesn't. I'm like, no, queerness also is a resistance of this notion that biological essentialism is at the center of everything and that you have to be this thing to know how to portray this thing. To me, it also gets into the idea of what it means to embody something or what it means to have lived the experience of something being directly attached to identity is also something that I find ultimately stifling. Part of that is the notion of queerness being thought of as such.
Nabra Nelson: That brings me to one of our questions, which is, in your opinion, when is it important to put a spotlight on queerness in our community?
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: I don't recall who this is. This is in anthropology. This is from a class I did in college in my second or third year, and it's like, thinking of things as a category of analysis versus a category of practice. I want to look at how many people identify as queer. Regional theatres, let's take a look at how many people who've identified as queer that you've actually programmed. Let's take a look at when I'm analyzing the performance folks in terms of inclusion, these are things I'm interested in for sure. I'm interested in interrogating why, for instance, seeing how people identify and how that has come to influence their lived experience and their access to resources. I don't think that that should be a defining principle of how things are programmed and things are curated, which is why the onus I think is often on the gatekeeper, on the producer, on the curator to ask, what does it mean? What does it mean to think when I'm curating something, am I curating it because we're only doing queer people or we're only doing this, or am I doing it because I find your work especially compelling?
It just happens to be that the people who I surround myself with and who are part of my community are mostly immigrants, are mostly queer, are mostly people of color. The people whose work I find compelling are of these categories, and thus that is who I'm including. Radical inclusion and radical examining of whose story am I centering, I find that that is important to acknowledge when you're taking a look back and assessing and also when you're thinking of designing a season, what that looks like. The marketing of it and the centering of that in the public lens is what I find incredibly frustrating.
Nabra Nelson: Focus on analysis is a really interesting way to rethink how we can still focus and spotlight queerness, center it at times, but not really confine art to this definition of queerness or any given particular box that we've decided upon, especially this idea of queerness as sexuality box that we've created for artists.
Marina Johnson: Well, I just really appreciate, because we're coming up to the end of our time with Adam, and I just wanted to spotlight the ways that you've brought focus into looking at identity in this really capacious way that doesn't cut off parts of the self, but actually says the self can be so much more that sometimes we let ourselves imagine in theatre, so really spotlighting that focus and the way that these identities are intersectional and not stopping.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Yeah. I'm so glad you used that language because it is not about cutting off. It's about bringing in more aspects. Sure, I'm queer and Arab, but also I grew up in a very upper middle class family and I went to British schools, and how did that make my experience of being queer and Arab different from another queer Arabs? It's not about cutting off or rejecting my queerness. It's about saying, no, me being gay does not tell you anything unique about me because it was actually... no, it was actually in the seder I attended. I think there's a rabbi who says there's however many Jewish people on Earth.
For example, there's one billion Jewish people on Earth, and there's one billion ways to be Jewish. I similarly am like, there are as many ways of defining what it means to be queer as there are people. It is a category of thinking, or rather a way of existing against the world. To me, I reject the idea. It's not because I don't want to deal with the fact or I want to reject my gayness, but rather that I'm like, you don't get to make all kinds of assumptions about who I am based on this one thing you know about me, because this thing actually I've experienced uniquely in conjunction with these nine other things about me that you don't know.
Marina Johnson: Refusing easy answers, Adam, one of the many reasons that we love you.
Nabra Nelson: Absolutely. I am wondering if we can end the episode, if you wouldn't mind, you can say no to this, but if you would please rattle off the queer SWANA talking points that you have become so rehearsed at or so familiar with so we can just get that out in the open and be done with it forever.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Oh my God, yeah. I don't know if you'll necessarily... I think it's talking about queerness in relation to your family and how your Arab family accepts queerness, which is always fascinating because no white queer person is asked that on a podcast ever or in a talkback, talking about whether your characters are directly yourself and what it means, how it makes you feel to feel represented, and who you want your audience to be, talking about specifically what it means to have had an all queer or all Arab or all blank rehearsal room and what that does. Then for me, the biggest one is often people telling you that your work is important or telling you how they found your work to be important or what they learned from it. I'm like, if you wanted to learn, you should go to a YouTube vlog. These are much easier, these are much more efficient and time concise and accurate tools for you to learn information. I love teachers. This is not in any way shade about teachers, but I am not a teacher.
I am asking questions that I feel like we as a society should be thinking about. That's my interest. I'm not interested in educating. That's not what I'm here for. I think the biggest talking point is often regurgitating different examples of ways that queer people have been marginalized from spaces and institutions, and it's not that there's not value in that. It's that I often find that people, as I've implied in many things that I've said earlier, are thinking of us through a victim mindset and a victim lens, and I find that when you center these experiences of marginalization, that further contributes to that, and that's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in saying, actually, this is negligible and I'm going to move on from it, and I want to do something that is so specific and unique that you can't put me in a box. The nature of my work is fundamentally forcing you to not be able to do that.
Nabra Nelson: Yes. That's awesome. That is such a great way to end this episode. Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation, Adam. We're going to try to have much more intersectional and complex conversations about queerness this season, so I hope all the listeners will join us.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Thank you. Yeah, and I'm so glad you all are doing this. I am so looking forward to... like I said, all the queer SWANA people, I feel like I probably know most of the people you're interviewing, and I'm looking forward to hearing all their hot takes.
Nabra Nelson: Thank you. You're just the best way to start this season. Thank you so much. We're looking at all of your art. We love you so much.
Marina Johnson: Yes, we love you, Adam. Thank you.
Adam Ashraf Elsayigh: Thank you, friends. Bye.
Marina Johnson: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of Kunafa and Shay and other HowlRound podcasts by searching HowlRound wherever you find podcasts. If you loved this podcast, please post a rating and write a review on your platform of choice. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on the howlound.com website. Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and contribute your ideas to the comments. Yalla, bye.