FannBoy Friday: Playwright Kareem Fahmy on Empowering Muslim Voices in Theater

FannBoy Friday: Playwright Kareem Fahmy on Empowering Muslim Voices in Theater

Kareem Fahmy is a Canadian-born director, playwright, and screenwriter of Egyptian descent. He has directed and developed plays at theatres nationwide. His plays include “Dodi & Diana” (O’Neill NPC finalist, world premiere at Colt Coeur), “American Fast” (Woodward/Newman Award Winner, NNPN Rolling World Premiere: Artists Repertory Theatre, City Theatre, InterAct), “A Distinct Society” (Co-World Premiere: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley/Pioneer Theatre, Writers Theatre), “The Triumphant” (Target Margin), “Pareidolia,” “The In-Between” (Noor Theatre), and an adaptation of the bestselling novel “The Yacoubian Building.” (Adapted from

I’ve been hearing about Kareem for many years now, and although I have yet to see one of his plays in person, I was so excited to get the chance to chat with him. During our conversation, I totally forgot to mention that a 2005 theatrical performance by another Muslim playwright, “Raisins Not Virgins,” blew my mind wide open and changed the trajectory of my life. I’m so excited about the work Kareem is doing to pave the way for more people to connect with theater.

I’m constantly gently taking stands because I do believe that when you are the first, you have a sense of responsibility of laying a really good foundation for the second, the third and the fourth.

– Kareem Fahmy

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

Shahjehan: What are you most excited about for 2023?

Kareem: It’s hard to pick because I’ve had this sort of wild season; three different plays that I wrote all get world premier productions. … I have a play called “Dodi and Diana,” which premiered in New York Off-Broadway this fall, which is actually my first ever full production as a playwright. The second one that opened sequentially is called “American Fast,” which is a play that’s now had four productions. The fourth production actually opens next week, so it’s in rehearsals right now in Philadelphia. And then the play I’m currently working on in Chicago is called “A Distinct Society.” And that had two productions earlier this season, and now I’m directing the third one. … That’s my sort of culmination of my season, is that I’m directing my own play at this place, Writers Theater in Glencoe Ill., which is one of the northern suburbs of Chicago.

So between September of 2022 and basically the end of this month I’ll have opened eight different productions across the country. It’s a real gift. I don’t know that I’ll ever have a season like this again. It’s what I’ve been passionate about, just all three of these plays, because you’re birthing these new things.

Shahjehan: This is maybe a two-part question, First, when would you say that you first personally felt empowered as a storyteller, whether that means the first time you were like, “Holy shit, the words I wrote are being spoken by actors,” or you observed maybe the first thing that you did being produced?

Kareem: I love the word empowered. It’s such an interesting word because when you said that, I thought back to when I was pretty young, when I had started making theater. I don’t even know if you’d call it theater now, but it was I was making stories, I was writing, I was creating things when I was maybe 18 or so. I started this little festival where I went to college with a bunch of my friends and it only lasted for two years. We produced this pretty robust festival of work and I had a play that I wrote, and directed some of it, and I produced it and I even acted in it even though I’m not an actor. It was empowering [because] there was nothing and then we made a thing. … I think that feeling opened up something in my brain, even though I didn’t really begin to articulate that I would do it for a living for many years after it.

Shahjehan: The second part of that question is, similarly, when did you feel empowered as a storyteller to be your whole self, whatever that means to you?

Kareem: That’s a really good question because the whole “being my whole self” thing, I’m still figuring out. I’m from Canada. I came to the U.S. to go to school and I think I had a certain idea about the work that I wanted to create early on. And then, you come into the “professional world” and people are saying like, “No, you should do this,” or “You should do that.” They push you into these directions and you often kind of go on that journey [while] still needing to figure out like “who am I” and “what am I,” and I’m still on that journey. … 

The more that I get in touch with the fact that I’m truly a hyphenate — like I’m not only a writer, I’m not only a director, I really tell stories in a lot of different ways. I think I’m still owning that hyphenate storyteller identity — but the more of it that I do and the more sort of confidence I build in all of these different hyphenate identities,  the more that I get to blend them together. It’s very exciting. … Right now I am writing and directing a play, so it’s like I have to hold the space for the story, the space for the production, the space for every single collaborator as as the central generative artist. And that’s super exhilarating. It’s also exhausting but it is “Oh wow, I can do this.” I can hold all of these pieces together. And it’s great. It’s really fun.

Shahjehan: In the same vein. when would you say in your career was the first time you took a stand and were like, “No, I’m not gonna do that,” or “I’m going to do it my way”?

Kareem: Oh my God, I do that all the time. …

Look, I am often not always right, but I’m often walking into professional situations, either as a writer or a director as the first, or one of the first, Middle Eastern Muslim people that they’re encountering. I’ve had these eight productions this season and I looked into the history of all of the various theaters that are producing my work, and I believe this is true, that in six of the eight theaters that are producing my plays this season, I’m the first ever writer of Middle Eastern descent ever programmed. And some of these theaters have been programming plays for 50 years, so we’re talking about hundreds of writers. So I was like, wow, that is both wonderful, but also bizarre that it would take so long for some of these organizations to engage with an artist like me, or just an artist from my community.

I’m constantly gently taking stands because I do believe that when you are the first, you have a sense of responsibility of laying a really good foundation for the second, the third and the fourth. Because it’s not even necessarily their fault, but they make mistakes where they don’t know, or they’re lacking a certain knowledge of how to take care of a culturally specific piece. So I do have to take stands and be like, “No, oh, this role is written for an Arab actor, we’re gonna cast an Arab actor and not a South Asian actor,” or, “Hey, this is an Egyptian character and actually the cultural specificity of Egypt is like this as opposed to like this.” And so those are all little mini stands, but like it adds up to a lot, right? Because I want it to be done well and I want it to reflect my experience as best as possible. I just want to set a really high bar for other people that come after me to be like, “Oh, Kareem got that, okay, then I should get that — at least that, if not more.” 

Shahjehan: Ok so, to me, you’re somebody who holds power as a “first” in these situations. Do you see a different challenge in the theater world versus the film world when it comes to the realm of representation and all those conversations we’ve been having for some time now? I’m wondering where you see it now, and where you see it going  in the next five to 10 years.

Kareem:  The thing is, theater ultimately doesn’t have to reach a very wide audience. I’ve only written a couple of TV pilots, I’ve had lots of meetings about different things. Not to say that theater isn’t a business — it’s part of show businesses, arts and entertainment — but film and television, podcasts, these other mediums, they’re squarely a for-profit model. So they’re not getting the representation gold star. At the end of the day, it’s like, “Is the show successful? Is the movie successful? Is it making money? Is it reaching audiences?” And I actually find that sort of beautifully freeing in a way, because then [with theater] it really is, “Are you telling a really great story? Are you telling a story that a lot of people want to consume?”

All of the work that I’ve created outside of theater does, at least as of now, feature Middle Eastern or Muslim characters. That’s really important to me. But ultimately, if something were to actually get made, I’d still want it to be successful and reach a wide audience. Whereas theater, I think, by nature of what it is, can be niche. It can be a few thousand people are going to see the show. And most of these theaters are not for-profit, so they’re probably gonna take a loss on my show, but they do get a little bit of a gold star of, “look, you featured an underrepresented story” and there’s less of a sense of, “I need to make the thing palatable to a white audience.” 

Even when I was really young, before I ever thought I would actually have a career, I thought a really good story should resonate across a really wide audience. I met artists who would be like, “I’m creating this type of work for a very small subset of people and that’s all I care about.” And I think that’s amazing. I’ve just never been that guy. I’ve always wanted the things that I create to feel like they can be anywhere and be consumed by anyone. Even when they’re really specific about things that, maybe even only Arabs and Muslims would know inherently, I still want to be able to make it feel entertaining to anyone. But that’s less vital in theater only because, you don’t have to have a big opening weekend at the box office, or come out of the gate with a pilot that everybody is talking about. 

They are different worlds, though I would argue that the intended effect is the same: you want to create a story that people are going to get excited about.

Shahjehan: Who are other North American Muslim creatives that inspire you these days?

Kareem: That’s a really cool question because I think most of my career I haven’t had those models.  There’s been so few. So I often feel like I’ve been forging my own path. I feel quite fortunate that over the course of my career as a director, Muslim writers have been the ones who have sometimes reached out to me and said “it is important that the person who’s interpreting my work is Muslim.” 

A few years ago I worked a lot with a playwright named Daaimah Mubashshir, who is a Black Muslim, like Nation of Islam Muslim, and that was a world I was not familiar with at all. She was like, “You’re one of the only Muslim theater directors in the country. I want to work with you.” So that was really inspiring to me because her approach and her point of view on Islam was very different than mine, but we found this amazing shared understanding. 

Similarly, I’ve worked a lot with an artist based here in Chicago named Rohina Malik, a Pakistani Muslim woman who is very devout. She’s a hijabi woman, she practices. I can’t call myself a practicing Muslim — I very much identify as a cultural Muslim baked into every sort of aspect of my life and my identity, but I don’t really practice the religion anymore for all sorts of personal reasons — whereas, Rohina is this practicing Muslim who prays five times a day and has done the pilgrimage several times and lives a very different experience. Her plays are full of these extremely faithful Muslim characters, whereas the Muslim characters in my plays are sometimes different than that, yet there’s this kind of beautiful collaboration I’ve had with her because I understand her experience.

Those have been the sort of the most formative experiences for me because I think that I’m inspired by the fact that all of these different Muslim storytellers are all telling their version of what Islam is like. And that’s been my journey too. Not that all of my plays fixate on Islam, but what is inspiring about what’s happening right now[as] there are more Muslim stories is that we’re starting to break out of this sort of monolithic idea of “Islam is this one thing and this is how we talk about Islam in America, and the narrative that you’re writing has to fit into the prevailing narrative of what it means in America.” And I think that’s kind of bullshit, right? Because you’re talking about a billion people around the planet with a billion different interpretations of what that is and how it works in their lives. So we’re in an interesting moment and it’s inspiring to me that I’ve seen my colleagues do that, that I’m now doing that. And I think we’re building a really cool  generation of various Muslim storytellers who are doing that without having had a lot of successful models for how that worked in the past, because there have just been so few who have broken through on a really big level.

Kareem Fahmy’s newest play “A Distinct Society” is playing at the Writers Theater in Glencoe, Ill. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @thekareemfahmy.

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