Throughout the most recent spasm of political rhetoric over immigration, one assumption has remained virtually unremarked: the idea that U.S. citizenship is always and for everyone an unequivocal good. For Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi, the answer is easy. Having obtained American citizenship in Seattle, where he continues to live, he asserts that for him, there is “no question, I am satisfied with it.” In fact, he values his citizenship so much that he says, “I vote all the time, even in primaries or on propositions — if the polls are open, I show up.”
But in his new play, The Talented Ones, which will preview this weekend as part of UCSB Theater’s Launch Pad program, suffrage does not suffice, at least not for one of the characters. The play, which comes billed as “A Black Comedy about the American Dream,” begins twice ― once at a citizenship ceremony and then again eight years later. This gap in time allows the drama to explore what happens when an immigrant couple, Omar from the Middle East and Cindy from Southeast Asia, obtain their citizenship at the same time and, after marrying, discover that their relative satisfaction with American life differs. Cindy earns a lot of money and enjoys what she does, while Omar struggles and wonders what went wrong. This dilemma, while not uncommon, barely registers with the American public as a significant aspect of the immigration debate. Few of us stop to consider what happens when the voluntary acceptance of our values as American citizens comes up hard against the practical realities of a society defined by competitive individualism.
For El Guindi, it is the space between mindsets that puts the drama in motion. “Imagine it,” he said to me in a recent conversation on the UCSB campus. “You give up everything that you know for this dream of America,” and then you discover that it means you will be judged strictly according to your individual material success. “These rote questions so common here, such as ‘what do you do?’ They are not even real questions in the country of origin, where people would instead want to know ‘who is your family?’ and ‘where do you belong?’” The passion with which the playwright announces his themes conveys his empathy effectively. Even if he is not personally disappointed with the American dream, he appears to know intimately how that must feel.
With another of his recent plays, Threesome, already booked in Seattle and New York City, El Guindi is one of the country’s hottest playwrights. He accepted the invitation to work in UCSB’s Launch Pad program with Professor Risa Brainin because it is, in his estimation, unique in the way that it supports the development of new plays. With Launch Pad, a new play receives much more than a staged reading, even though the result is not considered a premiere but rather a “preview production.” This approach allows the playwright to keep reworking the script even while collaborating not only with actors but also with professional set designers and costumers. When I visited rehearsal last week, there were effects already in place on the Hatlen Theater stage that easily rank with the top work being done in any professional theater on the West Coast.
The show’s title, The Talented Ones, refers to the dauntless immigrants at its core, but talking with El Guindi and witnessing the work going on at UCSB for this project, it’s only natural to feel that the reference spills over to the talented team that’s come together to put on this show.
The Talented Ones will be at UCSB’s Hatlen Theater, Thursday, May 21-Saturday, May 30. For tickets and information, visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu or call 893-2064.