BWW Interview: Sulayman Al Bassam Talks PETROL STATION at Kennedy Center
Sulayman Al Bassam is returning to the Kennedy Center next week for the first time since 2009. The international playwright and director has had his work performed around the world, but this is the first time he will be using an all-American cast instead of his usual Pan-Arab troupe.
The play, Petrol Station, is described as a "a modern dystopian story where people of many varied and fascinating identities and backgrounds intersect at a non-descript gas station on the border of a country torn by civil war."
It toys with ideas of human identity and borders and the relationship between the two-not in the least bit irrelevant in a time and place such as we find ourselves today in the States.
We caught up with Al Bassam to get some of his thoughts on the production, influences behind it, and his thoughts on theatre.
His excitement is immediately obvious from the outset of our chat. First, he says, "I find it exciting to present this piece in DC on the big stage. For a long time, I made work about the Arab world that played to audiences all over the world - they invited audiences to look into a window for a glimpse of the 'otherness.' Now the optic is indeed altered by playing in English; in a more immediate environment and with a sense of immediacy within the audience-and that that immediacy can allow for the contours of the allegory and the use of it as political theatre to be fleshed out."
So, you are producing a play in the States today that originally is set against a turbulent border in the Middle East, and you are doing it in English with an all-American cast for the first time. Tell us a little about that.
"I do think that it's more than ironic; poignant somehow; that Arab political theatre should be able to appropriate the American idiom at this time and explore more of what has previously been understood as a separate, distant issue - and find what is shared."
"I love making cross-cultural work; I am a theatre maker and a political theatre maker; and when thinking about this production, I was struck by the fact that my usual troupe, being Arab and not American, probably couldn't perform in the United States at this time. So it is an all-American cast. But it is part of the power of actors to assume and metamorphosize into forms that are of others and move across ostensible borders with the power of the power of the poetry that they carry."
You mentioned the idea of appropriation earlier. Can you elaborate on that?
"The limits of appropriation are defined in the midst of allegory within this production. In making the choices around the casting and the way the story might carry echoes of other stories, moments, worlds... it's really the allegorical balance that determines the appropriateness (or lack) of appropriation.
"My time at New York University gave me the idea of the appropriation for American voice. That artist in residence program allowed me to develop this further and I found it created a rather mesmerizing quality of the distant land. Little did I know then how it would be altered by the election of the populist leader, whose main thrust of discourse is based around the type of intolerance explored in this production."
"I have always had a strong fascination for language as a form for identity and culture. How those choices in performance can significantly alter meaning. The tenure of my work engages with identity and sexuality. I see language as a medium for drama in that arena."
You say language is a careful choice, and yet for all that you are both translating this play into English and transposing it into an American context and voice, you have left the name of the show with a decidedly un-American term, "petrol station," instead of "gas station."
"One of the central themes of the play is around the oil economy. It involves migrants; borders; male/female sexuality, yes, and oil is a big part of it, and why it takes place at a petrol station. I felt it was important for audiences to understand and so, for me to state, that I'm not an American playwright. This is a play by an Arab playwright who is not American, who is appropriating the language and cultural elements. I left it deliberately as a sort of indicator."
Can you give us some examples of these cultural translations?
"In Arabic, there is this term, 'Bedoon,' meaning someone without a state. I have a Bedoon featured in the play, but translating it into English; well. There is the political question of the stateless Arab - but that is not unique to the Arab setting at all. Interesting echoes emerge when that role is played, as it will be, by an African American actor that come without being false. I find the process illuminating and engaging. There are migrant workers in the production; and those are usually cast as being workers from the gulf coming up from India, say; here, in DC, they will be Spanish speakers from this gulf."
"It is interesting; a few years ago with my Arab version of Richard III - a tragedy-audiences watching would think to themselves, 'Well, these are Arabs and this can only be a play that takes place there, far away, in the Middle East, where this sort of thing happens.' But that distinction is no longer so blatant, and Petrol Station is an experiment in that border territory."
Can you tell us a little about your use of borders in this production?
"Borders are immensely important to this play, just as borders are important to this time period with so much fraught politicization around them. In the production, you have the border of place, the border of the cross-over area between on one hand a very Arab set of cultures and setting and on other, broader global cultures and setting."
"I deeply admire Bernard-Marie Koltes; a French writer and playwright who used language to explore. It's behind a sort of extreme position I've adopted to my work - in order to allow this dramatic text to carry echoes of the current political moment and the surprising similarities between places."
So you are bringing to the DC theatre scene a production that is a reflection of this idea - and something that has a lot to say.
"Yes. The function of theatre in today's America is perhaps more significant than it has been for a long time, and with the notion propagated by the highest powers in the country-alternative facts-that theatre takes on a different role in society. Petrol Station is a piece that resonates within that space in that transformative potential of theater; the idea of theater as a type of political communion or social activation."
PETROL STATION plays the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on March 24-26, 2017. A free, post-performance discussion with Al Bassam will take place on March 24. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.