Expanding What It Means to Be American with Adam Ashraf Elsayigh - FannBoy Friday

Adam is a writer, theater-maker, and dramaturg who writes and develops plays that interrogate the intersections of queerness, immigration, and colonialism.

Expanding What It Means to Be American with Adam Ashraf Elsayigh - FannBoy Friday

FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.

Adam Ashraf Elsayigh was born in Cairo, Egypt to parents who were reluctantly doctors. Soon thereafter, Adam’s parents relocated the family to Dubai, and 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, theater-maker, 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 Theater with an emphasis in Playwriting and Dramaturgy from NYU Abu Dhabi and is an MFA candidate in playwriting at Brooklyn College. 

My previous guest Amin El Gamal was an actor in one of Adam’s shows and suggested that I connect with him, so thank you to Adam for being so responsive so quickly!

(Adam’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Shahjehan: What are you most excited about for 2023?

Adam: I'm in the middle of writing a commission of a documentary play for Golden Thread Productions. Golden Thread is one of the few Middle Eastern theater companies in the US, and I was very excited when they commissioned me to write this play about the life of Alaa Abd el Fattah, who's an Egyptian political prisoner. It's really evolved from what I thought was gonna be — a 90 minute one act into a giant trilogy. We have a first workshop in a few weeks, and I'm excited about that. 

I'm really excited there's a strike in the Writers Guild of America. It's obviously a lot of loss and a lot of precarity for a lot of artists, but it also signals hopefully a better future. And so I'm excited for what's to follow. And I'm hoping that there's some type of similar reckoning and reshaping in theater because for all the problems in TV even the fact that we have the structure of a strike now implies or maybe hopefully brings us into a better future. And I don't know where that is with theater yet, so that's exciting.

Shahjehan: I wanted to pull out two quotes of yours from your artist statement and ask you about those in a little bit more depth. The first one is: 

“I define myself as an American playwright, despite being an immigrant whose plays are often set outside US borders because I believe my writing expands what it means to be an American.”

I was wondering if you might tell me a little bit more about Cairo versus the United States in terms of being a creator.

Adam: I moved to the US around my early twenties after college. So a lot of my training and learning [was in Cairo] as an artist and my exposure to other people's theater was during my education, but it was also happening while I was at NYU in Abu Dhabi.

The notion of here versus there is always one that I'm like, I don't know what that means because there's a lot of spectrum of “there,” and there are places that are very American elsewhere, and there are places that are really not American here. And I define American in my own lens. I think the biggest difference is the more time has passed as I have lived in the US, I'm more aware of how I'm being received and what people think, what like boxes and labels and categories I'm being put in. [For example] my play Drowning in Cairo, I wrote it when I was a student at New York University in Abu Dhabi, and I had no intention of living [in the US] at that time. I did not write it for an American audience. I wrote it with very specific statements and very specific ideas in mind because in my head it was for an international audience, whatever that means. It was for an Arab audience. Then I moved to the US. We had a reading and a workshop of it and then COVID happened, and then we were like stuck for a few years. And the longer I spent here and the more I heard, I saw what type of work was being produced. And the more I heard how critics and how certain gatekeepers were talking about Arab work, I started to hear my own words that I had written years ago differently. And I understood that they were being received differently. And so for a long time [that really] informed how and whether I was comfortable writing about the Arab world. 

I would say that's a start to that, to answering that question. It's a very complex question. But I really don't like the first part, which is this idea of, I define myself as an American writer because I'm like, what the hell does that mean? I think I look and sound like this. I sound like this, and I've sounded like this before ever stepping into the United States. And I speak about this with a lot of my fellow playwrights, Middle Eastern and otherwise who are immigrants. And we talk about like when you grow up anywhere else, you have the local stuff and then you have the American stuff next to each other. And Americans don't understand that because Americans go to the movies. You go to AMC, and you just have the American stuff. I grew up in Dubai, like I would go to the movie theater, and at any given moment in any theater in the country, [if] there were 10 [screens] there were at least gonna be six languages and different types of people going to different theaters. And so to me Americanness does precipitate in a lot of places, and Americanness has an impact on a lot of places. And I think that now that I live here, I'm also able to look at Americans and see the kinds of assumptions they have about themselves that someone who was born and raised here just can't do. And to me that's a value, and that's part of why I see I have value as a writer, writing for American audiences.

Shahjehan: Your other quote is as follows:

 “I write so members of my communities who have historically been misrepresented in the American theatre can see their full selves on stage.” 

This is essentially a question I always ask people. When would you say that as a creator, you first felt empowered (whether as a storyteller or otherwise, to be your full self)?

Adam: I actually really don't like that quote anymore. I would not write this today ... I think that's a bit of a sham of a question. [If] you have to see your full self on stage, then like why are you writing just go home! We wanna see strands of ourselves in different ways on stage. Our thing is to bring another version of that and to bring ... parts of yourself in different people. I did not grow up seeing like a 25 year old queer immigrant Egyptian cis man living in New York, writing the types of plays that I write, but didn't have to. The idea that you have to see your full self on stage ... as time has passed, I've found it to be a bit misleading. Because then you're asking for representation of the exact intersections of the self. It's so easy to look from the other end and be like, that's crazy, not everyone can see themselves on stage. That's not realistic. I think how I've come to approach that question is more of a comparable self ... and that's an element that I want to incorporate into myself ... potential future selves that you play with, and so to me that's exciting. 

I think the other reason I've come to resist that type of statement is because it also leads us into this idea of representation is the answer. Once you have representation and your work is done, back your stuff and go home. And I actually just don't agree with that. I think there are a lot of issues besides representation and sometimes we (and by we I mean like industries and larger economies) pat ourselves on the back because look, you have this first person who did this thing, then okay, we're done. And it's more complicated than that. It's about putting in the infrastructure so that person doesn't feel like they're the odd one out. So that there's a hundred of that person. We're not having this conversation anymore is my opinion.

Shahjehan: Where do you think this discussion is at now, or headed?

Adam: Yesterday I [began to] watch The Bear. I was like, “Oh, wow. They actually spelled the name Ibrahim correctly and they depict an immigrant who speaks in a clearly non-American accent who doesn't eat pork.” And his storyline is not about that. Like he's just that, right? And I was like, “Oh, wow, I could never have seen this five years ago.” And that's great. That's a step. The question [then ] becomes, can we center this beyond the question of representation? Who is in the writer's room? Who is behind the work? Does that actor have the same agency and power as everybody else in that room? Was that role written for that actor as opposed to all the other white guys in that show who like, if they called out something on set, they will probably have another thing to work on. So it's a question of economics. It's a question of how are we fitting into a mold that already exists that we now know is dysfunctional. Like there's a reason we're striking. But are we just being asked to fit into that mold, or are we actually being given the agency to change what that mold is? It's a question of is it an assimilation or is it a form of continuous growth and development based on who's being given a seat at the table.

I find that [in] the conversation of “is the first Black player, this is the 50th Black player, this is the 10th Muslim player” I don't care. I don't wanna think about this. In this Zoom call, we're doing these questions. If we were two white guys, and you were calling me for your podcast, you know what we would be talking about? We would be talking about what the style of comedy in my play is and what other comedians inspired that and why I gravitated towards that style of comedy and like why these dark themes and how they pertain to something else. We would not be talking about representation. I wanna get to a point where we can be beyond talking about representation. I'm ready for us to actually like, not pat ourselves on the back for where we are, but instead go forward.

To talk about it from a contrast of film and theater [standpoint], I think there used to be a time where people would talk about ... how theater is so much more progressive than film and tv and I think that's totally reversed now. I think theater increasingly has a much older audience. Theater is taking less risks and the things I'm seeing on TV just in terms of representation of queerness, in terms of representation of religion and what religion looks like and what race looks like ... It's just so much more intersectional, so much more nuanced than anything I see in theater in New York or elsewhere in the country.

Shahjehan: Who are people that inspire you?

Adam: That's a great question. Bilal Baig the creator of SORT OF

Shahjehan: I love that show!

Adam: So good! They inspire me a lot. 

Haruna Lee, who is a playwright and and writer for Pachinko. Ramy is definitely a major inspiration. Not that that's how I would make that show, but I love that he made that show. And now there are more doors to see other people who go watch him make other shows. 

Honestly, Awkwafina. I love like silly humor, like campy [stuff].

You can listen to my conversation with Adam below or wherever you find your podcasts.