Egyptian American playwright Yussef El Guindi is mostly known to Chicago audiences from several productions with Silk Road Rising, including the world premiere of his 2005 comedy Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, about an Egyptian immigrant family wrestling with assimilation in America. Back of the Throat, in which an Arab American man in post-9/11 America faces down government agents who take over his home in an increasingly hostile “investigation,” followed a few months later.
Assimilation and oppression twine together in El Guindi’s 2010 dark comedy Language Rooms, now in a riveting local premiere at Broken Nose Theatre under Kaiser Zaki Ahmed’s direction. Set in an “undisclosed location” circa 2005, El Guindi’s taut and increasingly clammy play focuses on Ahmed (Salar Ardebili), an Egyptian American translator and interrogator, whose lack of facility with small talk seems to call his abilities—if not his loyalties—into question, at least according to his coworker, Nasser (Bassam Abdelfattah). “You can’t just be yourself here,” Nasser cautions. “We have to fit in.”
A meeting with Kevin (Bradford Stevens), his cunning superior, adds to Ahmed’s unease. An interrogation he conducted with Nasser left the impression that Ahmed was sympathetic to the suspect. Now Ahmed has a chance to redeem himself by interrogating another prisoner.
Samir (Bilal Dardai) is an Egyptian immigrant and grocery-store owner accused of funneling money to terrorist organizations. He’s also Ahmed’s father. (This isn’t really a spoiler; the foreshadowing is thick.)
El Guindi’s blend of menace and absurdity recalls Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, not to mention almost everything Harold Pinter wrote. But El Guindi isn’t imagining dystopia—not when images of Abu Ghraib remain in our minds and daily xenophobic and Islamophobic assaults from the White House fill the news.
His gift for taking small personal moments and enlarging them into bigger cultural ruptures comes into sharpest focus in the encounter between Samir and Ahmed. Dardai in particular is heartbreaking: proud of having a son with such an “important job” and confused why that son abandoned him years before. “Your Arabic has improved,” he tells Ahmed, a sign of how much his son, who was embarrassed by his father’s immigrant ways as a child, has assimilated. But in the U.S., being Muslim means Ahmed’s patriotism will always be called into question (just ask Ilhan Omar).
El Guindi deliberately pushes the answer to the question of Samir’s guilt or innocence to the side of the narrative. After all, as Samir tells Ahmed, “Unless your being innocent is as interesting to them as being guilty, you will not be believed.” Broken Nose’s chilling production makes the case that what seems absurd and unthinkable today will be documentary fodder tomorrow. v