Rejected from every acting program he applied to so became a playwright instead.
Immigrants in America and the inseparability of sex and politics.
He won't be able to afford to live in Seattle much longer.
At the age of 15, Yussef El Guindi told his father that he wanted to be an actor. The El Guindi family was full of artists—actors, directors, and writers going back for generations—which is exactly why his father was displeased by this news. "He told me, 'It's such a precarious existence,'" El Guindi says. "Working as a film producer in Egypt, my father had met Orson Welles and Howard Hawks and William Faulkner. He knew the arts, but he eventually had to quit and said, 'I can't base my business on such irresponsible people.'"
Two years later, El Guindi visited a friend who was studying in Paris—at the time, El Guindi's family was living in London—and fell in love with the city. He returned to England and made a deal with his father. If El Guindi could study in Paris, he would promise to stop pursuing theater and dedicate himself to law instead. His father agreed.
El Guindi went to Paris, but he didn't hold up his end of the bargain. "I was introduced to psychology and philosophy," he says (as well as professors who held seminars in their apartments with wine, cheese, and marijuana). "It was a whole new phase of my life." He quickly abandoned law, struck a compromise with his father to study literature, and eventually tried to get into US acting programs. He was rejected by all six of the ones he'd applied to ("That was a big blow," he says) and reluctantly trudged to his backup option: a playwriting program at Carnegie Mellon University. "All my life, I've been living plan B," he says. "It's funny how when you don't really want something, you get it. I don't know what law of the universe that is, but it seems to be one." He began by trying to write highly literary scenes inspired by Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, and the Bloomsbury Group, but was told by his teachers that his writing was "not entertaining."
"Write a five-page scene about beer, or who farted, or two thirsty people and which one gets the glass of water, or two people who've been poisoned and which of them gets the antidote," he remembers one teacher telling him. "My teacher said, 'I don't give a shit about what you're writing about, how piss-poor the subject is, but write about what moves things forward, what propels you through the scene.'" For two years after he graduated, El Guindi says he "couldn't write a thing." His head was so full of his teachers' critiques, he couldn't work—so he taught instead. (Greg Carter, the artistic director of Strawberry Theatre Workshop, was one of El Guindi's students at Duke.) Eventually, El Guindi was able to write again. His career took off in 2000, when he finally got an internet connection and searched for Arab American theaters in the United States and then sent them his scripts. "I began to get my plays done in San Francisco, Chicago, and New York," he says. "Things started happening."
El Guindi has lived a peripatetic life, shuttling between North Africa, Europe, and the United States, and most of his plays feature geographically disoriented characters trying to navigate new circumstances. "The plays are quintessentially American," he says. "They're about that journey of coming to a new place and trying to make a home of it." Sex is the other persistent theme in his work, both as dramatic device (the thing that propels us through the scenes) and as metaphor—even his characters' most intimate moments are qualified by economic and political forces beyond their control.
His recent play Threesome, which opened in Portland this year before touring to Seattle and New York, is about a young Egyptian couple who had been part of the Cairo uprising in 2011 but had to flee the country. They wound up in America, traumatized and angry at the world and each other. Because they're experiencing some sexual malaise, they invite a young white American into their bedroom to liven things up. (Spoiler alert: Things don't go well.) The play begins, deceptively, as a goofy bedroom farce that slowly but inexorably tugs the audience into more provocative and difficult territory. El Guindi says he's organized a small reading of Threesome in Cairo, but he doubts it will be fully staged there anytime soon—its first-act comedy and second-act tragedy require too much nudity.
Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World is another of El Guindi's doomed-romance plays—in this case, between a recent Egyptian immigrant and a friendly but ignorant white woman in New York City—that exquisitely modulates comedy with tragedy. Toward the middle of Pilgrims, the taxi-driving Musa gets scolded for falling in love by his Somali friend Tayyib. "All lovers have this brain-dead look in their eyes," Tayyib says. "Scientists report on this. When you fall in love, your intelligence drops. There are studies... 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!"
Neither Pilgrims nor Threesome uses stylistic tricks or meta-theatrical winking, just plain language from the mouths of everyday characters with Chekhov-sized longings. Their affairs are all haunted by the complicated phantom of foreignness—not just between people from foreign cultures, but between people fundamentally alienated from each other and sometimes from themselves. "Most of us seem to have a toxic relationship with our own flesh," Leila, the female half of the couple in Threesome, says to her Egyptian partner, Rashid. "It's strange to be so uncomfortable in the thing that is supposed to be most familiar."
El Guindi's ability to write from that gap, that moment of displacement and discomfort—whether geographical, cultural, or sexual—is the heart of his genius.