Burrowing Into ‘Black Sites’ and Language Rooms

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Willaim Dao, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid and James Asher in "Language Rooms"

The genesis of a play is always strange in that the least thing can trigger a massive project. Sometimes it is overheard conversation, a news article, or some casual observation that resonates for some reason, and that propels you to start the play. In the case of Language Rooms it was the revelation that the CIA was operating these so-called “black sites”, where suspected terrorists were being farmed out to these overseas facilities so that “enhanced interrogations” could be applied. That revelation triggered, or tapped into, an internal, inchoate conversation I didn’t even realize I was having, post-9/11. The “black sites” brought to the fore feelings I hadn’t yet articulated for myself.

Yussef El Guindi

For it wasn’t so much the political angle that sparked the play.  Indeed, I wouldn’t even say this is a political play; the play has no political agenda or ax to grind. Rather it was the way in which these “black sites” seemed the perfect means by which to discuss the emotional impact the last decade was having on certain people, including myself — primarily, the sense of alienation that was creeping in, quite unconsciously, as the last decade and the “war on terror” burrowed into our lives.

Having proudly become a citizen in the ’90s, proudly going off to vote for everything from library issues to pot holes to presidential elections, I was surprised at how civically disengaged I was becoming in post-9/11 America — without my being aware that this was happening (i.e. this was not a conscious decision). I was quite passionate about becoming a citizen, feeling I was now part of an American immigrant tradition, a national narrative that I could now call my own. But that narrative in the last decade seemed to be ejecting Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern groups, and anyone who appeared to be from that part of the world (e.g., the attacks on Sikhs). The “Us and Them” paradigm had the subtle effect of incrementally cleaving me from the country I had so whole-heartedly embraced.

In addition to this sense of alienation, there was the case of Captain James J. Yee, a Muslim U.S. army chaplain who was accused of “aiding the enemy” and “spying” in his capacity as a Muslim chaplain to the detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. That was another strong trigger for the play — a US citizen, a US army captain, suddenly having his allegiances and loyalty questioned. If it could happen to him…

James Asher and William Dao

And so the play became a darkly humorous examination of this “us and them” viewpoint, as well as of my own desire to feel I “belonged”, as a citizen — even as I found that sense of belonging blocked, qualified. Also, the play examined immigration in general, and the emotional price paid by immigrants as they make that journey to the States — and finally, the comic absurdity that often arises in a country’s use of official language as it tries to balance its admirable support for human rights while sliding into the dark side.

A quick word about development — this play is currently a two-hour play with intermission. It was originally a three-hour play. Sometimes you tap into characters who won’t shut up. All the characters in this play had more to say than time, patience and the pacing of the piece allowed. The first workshop audience at ACT in Seattle heard it all (sorry). In subsequent workshops at Ojai Playwrights Conference, at Playwrights Foundation, at New York Stage and Film Company, at the Wilma Theater (where the play received its premiere) and finally at Golden Thread Productions and Asian American Theater Company’s co-production of the piece in San Francisco, the play took on its final shape.

Language Rooms. Presented by Golden Thread Productions and Latino Theater Company. Now through June 24 at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St.,  LA 90013.  Thu- Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 3 pm. $40. Students, seniors and veterans $20. Thursdays $10. 866-811-4111, toll-free. www.thelatc.org

***All Language Rooms production photos by David Allen Studio

Yussef El Guindi’s most recent productions include Pilgrims Musa and Shei in the New World (winner of the Steinberg/ American Theater Critics Association’s New Play Award in 2012; Gregory Award 2011; Seattle Times’ “Footlight Award” for Best World Premiere Play) at ACT, and Language Rooms (Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, as well as ACT’s New Play Award), co-produced by Golden Thread Productions and the Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco; and at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

Yussef El Guindi

Yussef El Guindi