An ‘Untapped Thirst for Contemporary International Drama in Translation’?

Earlier this month, Rebekah Maggor wrote over at American Theatre about her experience with “Dancing Is a Sin: Two New One-Woman Plays from Egypt”

dancingJust hours after an announcement about the two plays was sent out, Maggor writes, the Boston workshop performance was fully booked — with a waiting list. Was this, as Maggor suggests, evidence of “an untapped thirst for contemporary international drama in translation”? Or was it just more evidence of a desire for the exotic “news from elsewhere”? Or both?

The plays will form part of a forthcoming anthology, Tahrir Tales: Plays from the Egyptian Revolution, ed. and translated by Maggor an Mohamed Elbakry, and the reaction to the January performance suggests an interest in further stagings. But, Maggor asks of her own interest: “Was mine a legitimate interest in their plays as dramatic literature? Or was it a newfangled fascination with the recent events of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and a taste for the exotic?”

Maggor writes about how she worked against exoticizing the material and toward connecting audiences with its more universal themes. These touched to whether an impoverished woman could ever be really free (in They Say Dancing Is a Sin) and a woman’s choice between objectifying and subjugating herself (in The Mirror). Instead of freezing Egyptian specificities that point the reader to an anthropologized, foreignized Other, Maggor writes about trying to make the plays resonate in their new context. Rather than staging it as a play about power and control Egypt, she staged it as a play that can also critique life in America.

Miranda Craigwell played the Dancer in The Say Dancing is a Sin. Maggor writes:

Craigwell found striking parallels between the Dancer’s stories of struggle in Egypt and the difficulties faced by women trying to climb out of poverty in the U.S. She pointed out fascinating connections between the Dancer’s criticism of wealthy Egyptian women and the American conversation around “white privilege.” During the panel discussion Craigwell told the audience, “Privilege is something you don’t know you have, until you don’t…This idea of privilege and being able to choose really resonates with me as an actress and a person of color. Because not everyone has the privilege to choose. It’s a universal theme.”

Maggor gives the director who wants to bring these plays to an Anglophone public suggestions on how to  foregrounds their nature as artistic works — not as anthropologica or exotica. But what about other directors?

It’s a question Margaret Litvin addresses in”Doomed by ‘Dialogue,’ Saved by Curiosity? Post-9/11 Arab Performances under American Eyes,” which was part of the collection on Arab and Arabic theatre, Doomed by Hope. Litvin writes:

The skeptic says: it is not art’s job to teach or edify, and artists can even be corrupted by playing to audiences whose curiosity is ethnographic or forensic.  The optimist says: events like Arabesque and (perhaps to a lesser extent) Muslim Voices actually can expand audiences’ knowledge of Arab or Muslim realities, and this is a good thing.  Likewise, the skeptic says, organized efforts to promote “dialogue” with “the Other” through art are doomed, because they must begin by reifying the Other into a single addressable interlocutor.  And yet, the optimist retorts, isolated small moments of dialogic give-and-take sometimes do emerge – although they more often fail to emerge…from particular playgoers’ encounters with particular performances.  The skeptic says: the box is Orientalist, how could it not be? And yet, the optimist says, there are wonderful things inside.

Hopefully, optimistically, there is an untapped interest in contemporary theatre in translation. And hopefully, optimistically, directors who choose to stage the plays from Maggor and Elbakry’s collection will give some thought to the questions raised by Litvin’s skeptic.

Read Maggor’s essay, “Found in Translation: Arab Dramas as Mirrors of American Dilemmas”

Watch the performance of Dancing Is a Sin and the conversation that followed: