Like Annie Hall Set Among African Immigrants
Yussef El Guindi’s New Play Is Tender, Funny, Painful, and True
You might argue that it's insulting to describe Yussef El Guindi's masterful new play Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World as "Annie Hall set among African immigrants."
That description could sound a little dismissive—i.e., "the play's derivative and 'ethnic'"—but that argument only works if (a) you don't consider Annie Hall a humanist masterpiece about cross-cultural love and (b) you think any play about African immigrants is incapable of expressing truths about people who aren't African immigrants.
The beauty of Annie Hall is its doubleness. The script is ostensibly about a neurotic Jewish comedian who talks too much and dates shiksas, but it's also a deep (and always entertaining) meditation on what can go right and wrong in professional and personal relationships with cross-cultural inflections. This is also the beauty of Pilgrims. The script is ostensibly a romantic comedy about a recent Egyptian immigrant in New York City who falls for a neurotic white American who talks too much—notice the gender swap of the neurosis—but is also a deep and entertaining meditation about relationships with cross-cultural inflections.
It begins with Musa (a taxi driver, played by Shanga Parker) and Sheri (a waitress, played by Carol Roscoe) walking up flights of stairs to his apartment for the first time. He's invited her up for a drink and asks if she wants a drink with alcohol. "Great," she says, sounding confused. "That's what I thought you meant." Then he continues [sic throughout for grammar and phonetic spelling]:
Musa: This Somali friend, he give me Johnny Walker as payment after I help him take merchandize across bridge a few times. Says he not believe in money between friends.
Sheri: That's a good one. I must remember that.
Musa: I say, I have no problem getting money from friend! He say, no no, money is the devil, and a good friend would not bring the devil into a friend's life. I say, I have strong faith! Give me this devil! I will fight it! He say, better not risk it.
Sheri: Alcohol is okay, though?
Musa: I say, so you corrupt me with drink? He say, now you test your faith with drink. Money is like invisible evil. But drink, you know what it is. I give you good way to prove your faith...
Sheri: Well. Here's to temptation. And the faith to resist it.
Neither of them resist their various temptations, of course—but I don't want to spoil the plot.
Later in the scene, Sheri picks up Musa's Koran and starts reading it aloud. Actor Shanga Parker's tense physical comedy (directed by Anita Montgomery) in this moment is magnificent. Musa doesn't want to be inhospitable and doesn't want to seem too physically aggressive—Sheri has already expressed nervousness about whether it's "safe" for her to visit the apartment of a man she barely knows—but is clearly uncomfortable about her cavalier handling of and reading from his Koran. He keeps trying to sneak up behind her and snatch it back, but she always turns away at the last moment. He had told her earlier that he learned English by reading mystery novels—Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett—and she makes a reckless comparison to his Koran:
Sheri: This is a kind of mystery book, too, right?
Musa: Not really.
Sheri: It's a whodunit, isn't it?
Musa: We know who done it! God!
The way these two nudge each other toward love despite their differences, in the most humanist and humanly goofy way, is the heart of Pilgrims. (The morning after their one-night stand—which, as Musa predicts, will turn into a "many-night stand"—she says during a whirlwind of her own psychobabble: "At this point, it's still too early for anything to suck with you. And I want to leave before that happens. Because you will disappoint me and I want to end this while I still think there's hope for us.")
El Guindi's past plays—most famously Back of the Throat, which earned glowing reviews from the New York Times and the New Yorker—investigate the politics of immigrants in official relationships with employers and government agents. But this foray into unofficial relationships reveals a whole new branch of El Guindi's career-long inquiry into what it's like to be a first-generation immigrant.
In a phone interview, he said that he began writing the play when he heard "voices in his head" coming up the stairs of an apartment building. Those voices turned out to be Musa and Sheri at the beginning of the first scene, and he kept working from there. He said he found the characters "charming" and wrote the play to learn more about them. But a director in Chicago politely rejected an early draft of the play, as did a director in Seattle. El Guindi himself was wary of Pilgrims: "They [the directors] said it was sweet, but what else? And I wanted to do something more substantial. My plays have been dealing with immigration, but this was trying to come at it from a different angle."
But those directors—and, at some points in the writing process, El Guindi himself—failed to understand that the play is substantial, while being delightful. (On the night I attended, after one plot point was revealed, the audience gasped: One doesn't hear enough of that in theater.) Pilgrims may, in some ways, be more substantial than El Guindi's other work about authority figures harassing immigrants. Love is ultimately more difficult—more fraught, more revealing, more rewarding—than law.
In another lovely scene, during which the full interior of a taxicab rises from the floor on hydraulic lifts courtesy of scenic designer Jennifer Zeyl, a Somalian friend makes this point to a lovesick Musa. (This friend, Tayyib, the one who gave Musa the whiskey, is played by vibrant actor Sylvester Foday Kamara, who Seattle audiences might remember as the schizophrenic African in Intiman's Blue/Orange in 2003.)
Tayyib: My first advice to you this morning is to please wipe that stupid smile off your face; because if you don't, I will delay opening my store to slap it off. It should be a law that people in love should not be seen by other people until the silliness of love wears off and they settle down into a normal relationship.
Musa: I am not in love. Stop saying this.
Tayyib: You know how I know? All lovers have this brain-dead look in their eyes. Scientists report on this. When you fall in love, your intelligence drops. There are studies. You smile for no reason, you hug and laugh at nothing. And you think the whole world has been built just to be a stage for you and your lover. What has not been studied is how annoying this is to the people watching.
Musa: How long since you been with a woman?
Tayyib: I tell you my friend, I make love like a bunny.
Musa: I mean not with yourself, with real person.
And on and on they go, in a scene as funny, sharp, and rewarding as the ones in which Mercutio needles Romeo about his lovesickness.
Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World is a Romeo and Juliet story—an Annie Hall story, a West Side Story story—for Americans in the 21st century. And perhaps for all people in this back-and-forth, from-one-home-to-another, permanently globalized world. Go. You won't regret it.