On National Queer Theater

Death and Resurrection: National Queer Theater's Criminal Queerness Festival at WorldPride

By William J. Cataldi, aka pup

NOTE: This article incorporates new grammatical forms designed to properly acknowledge non-binary individuals. It uses they/them/their as the pronoun choice.

In addition to working a full-time job with the Postal Service, I review New York theater for the unassuming Hi! Drama theater review service. Mostly, I stick to off- and off-off-Broadway theater, leaving Broadway to the long-standing reviewers, who always snap up the high-profile stuff. That’s all right with me. I like the gritty theaters, the small audiences, and the earnest, hungry creative teams, with their overflowing, often young New York talent. Personally, I focus on LGBTQ theater, not really so much because I am a homosexual man, but because I find it fascinating for reasons unbeknownst to me. We like what we like.

So when June was busting out all over, I knew I had to choose some LGBTQ offerings to review. (We get to choose what we want to do, and then approach the press agents directly.) That’s when I ran across something called “Criminal Queerness Festival” produced by National Queer Theater (NQT), a four-play festival focused on playwrights from countries which criminalize queerness. Apparently, seventy countries around the world make at least some aspect of queerness legally punishable, and six countries require the death penalty. I thought it sounded like a good cause, appropriate for the WorldPride celebrations. I’ve never seen four plays in a two week period, because I’m a busy guy, but I had the nagging feeling that the Festival deserved complete coverage, so I decided to do it.

On my way down Christopher Street, in the heart of the West Village, which during WorldPride was the center of global Pride, I thought the Festival would offer four different complaints about anti-queer injustice in Egypt, Tanzania, Pakistan, and China. The Festival billed itself as wanting to inspire global LGBTQ activism through theater. If that’s what it had been, I would have been happy. Little did I know, as I rang the bell at IRT Theater, that I was walking into a magnificent, complex, life-changing theatrical experience worthy of the history books.

Adam A. Elsayigh’s Drowning in Cairo told the story of three gay men, from youth to their early thirties, living in Cairo in the recent past. Moody and Khalid are privileged, wealthy young men from good families, and Taha is the son of one of Moody’s family’s servants. All is well for them in Hasni Mubarek’s Egypt until the aftermath of 9/11 began to destabilize the regime. It’s not that Egypt pre-9/11 welcomed gays. Homosexuality has long been criminalized in Egypt, but so long as gay people kept out of the public eye, they could live fairly free lives. The situation was much like in the U.S. 1950–1969. Unfortunately, in Egypt, the period ended with no Stonewall Riot.

On the night of May 11, 2001, police raided the Queen Boat, a party boat for gay men that had thrived before it caught the attention of the authorities. Egyptian police arrested 52 men, hauling them off to prison, where many were beaten and raped. The raid sent a powerful chill through gay Egypt, sending many into a paranoid closet. Drowning in Cairo places its three characters on the boat the night of the raid, then traces the event’s aftermath in their lives.

Drowning in Cairo takes place entirely amongst the three characters, behind closed doors. This gives it a vice-like intensity. It explores in excruciating detail how and why these three men become so profoundly unhappy against the backdrop of oppression. Everything psychologists ascribed to homosexuals in the United States before the Stonewall Riots (mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, psychological instability, lack of integrity and honor, and more) are the lot of these men in contemporary Egypt. The play serves as a complete blueprint for the effect oppression has on the oppressed.

Well-crafted and beautifully acted, the play doesn’t moan or complain about injustice. It howls in pain at oppression that is presented as a fact of nature, like an earthquake or hurricane. Moody descends into insanity, while Khalid finds it easier to compromise and, at times, deny his love for Moody. Taha, ever stalwart and calm, continues to care for his wealthy masters long after he stops working for them. Thus, Elsayigh cleverly weaves class into the discussion. At one point, Khalid asks, “What would you have done?” That painful question will echo in my mind forever.

As with two of the other three plays in the Festival, Drowning in Cairo could not have been performed in Mr. Elsayigh’s country. The Festival offered these plays a venue in New York City, where they might get attention and inspire activism. However, candlelight vigils and LGBTQ protests outside the Egyptian embassy aren’t going to do the trick here. The play has a cruel focus, that lets it’s liberal American audience know immediately that there’s quite possibly little that can be done, least of all useless hand-wringing. This was confirmed for me, when I spoke to NQT Artistic Director, Adam Odsess-Rubin. He told me that during talk-back sessions with some of the artists, when asked what could be done, they said, “Maybe, nothing.”

That doesn’t mean that the performance was pointless. I spoke with Noor Hamdi, who played Taha. His family is originally from Syria, although he has lived primarily in Chicago and New York. He has visited Damascus, and as a result feels grateful that he is able to live in the United States. He said, “On that note, this Festival . . . really struck a chord with me. It’s . . . a topic that I really want people to know about, that in the world there are people just like us. Could be the same face, could be the same everything. They, internally, are suffocating . . . because they cannot be who they are outwardly. And bringing that to light, here in this country, I think is really important, because we are so fortunate in the United States, more than any of us take credit for. I think we take it for granted because we like to complain about our politics, which is fair. And we like to complain about our living situations and our social situations, which is also very fair. But . . . it could be a whole lot worse . . . . It could be debilitating. It could be murderous, to be honest. And we’re lucky that it’s not.”

When I came out in the late-80s, I was exposed to a lot of story-telling by older gay folks  about what life had been like for the previous couple of generations. After decades of living out and free, it’s become easy for me to view my partner’s experience in his youth (he’s 78 years old) as a distant memory. Occupied as I am with my current life, I had almost forgotten. Drowning in Cairo reminded me with a slap in the face. Life for gay men in Egypt no longer seems so far removed from 2019 New York. Our Egyptian gay brothers and sisters are suffering, and I will never forget again.

Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s Waafrika 123, the second play in the series, tells the story of non-binary Awino, who lives with male aspirations in the village of Luoland in Kenya. Their father is the Chief of the village, ultimately responsible for the well-being of the community. He takes some heat for Awino’s dressing, acting, and behaving as a man, but until Bobby, a lesbian American aid-worker, comes to live in the village, things run fairly smoothly. Bobby and Awino fall in love and begin to have sex in secret. Nothing gets past the villagers, who turn up the heat on the Chief to do something about this destabilizing influence. When a famine arrives, which the villagers think was sent by the ancestors to punish them for Awino’s errant behavior, Awino suffers a clitorectomy with a rusty razor blade to make them into a “real” woman, Bobby gets raped by the authorities, and the Chief, torn by his love for Awino and his love for the community, shoots himself with a rifle. It was unclear to me when I saw the play, but as was explained to me later by playwright and scholar, Nick Mwaluko, Awino and the Chief are resurrected and let the world know that the ancestors want Awino to live their truth, and that the community needs to make space for them. So the play ends on a hopeful note.

What became acutely evident to me with this second production was that the playwrights, actors and artists who took part in the Festival were not just LGBTQ activists fighting for justice. They have a powerful love for their respective cultural heritages, the very thing that criminalized them. Mwaluko, originally from Tanzania, does an outstanding job illustrating the authoritarian point of view—the provincialism, the localism of the tribe; their devotion to the ancestors, who suffered behind the living to make life possible; the absolute need for social cohesion, so as to stave off want, always waiting at the back door; the absolute need for everyone to adhere to the roles they inherited from birth; and the unbendable traditions of the community. The Chief and his first wife (he has multiple wives) both give masterful speeches arguing these aspects of life in rural Kenya.

The audience, on a Thursday evening during Pride, at something called the “Criminal Queerness Festival” in New York City, likely consisted of people very much like Bobby. But Bobby’s private speeches to Awino, emphasizing the need to be true to themself, ring hollow and vacuous in light of the intractable world around them. New York is far away. Bobby has an American “everything will work out for the best in the end” attitude, but it doesn’t. Liberal audience members must have felt confused. Love doesn’t always win.

Later, in a conversation with Mwaluko, I learned that he has an African understanding of the problems faced by queer folks there. Africa suffers under the weight of its colonial past. It requires solutions to all of its issues that come from a uniquely local perspective. Importing western LGBTQ individualism can actually have a deleterious effect. That’s why Bobby is such a problematic character. Even if post-colonial governments in Nairobi could be persuaded to accept queerness, individual communities across Kenya wouldn’t care. They view themselves as ruled by the local chief, the ancestors, and the elders. Hence, Chief and Awino die and return from the dead with a message of reconciliation—a symbolic event that resonates across cultures and religions. Multiply the local Kenyan situation throughout the continent, and we see that simply transplanting LGBTQ activism and modalities from New York to Africa can never succeed. Africa is for Africans.

Furthermore, for Mwaluko, death is a metaphor for queerphobia, whether internal, practiced against oneself, or external, as with the rejection of Awino’s true self by their community. Resurrection is a metaphor for reconciliation between the alienated and the community. Chief and Awino return as ghosts—not like the frightening apparitions of American horror films, but friendly ancestors who want what’s best for everyone. Like Odysseus returning from the underworld, Chief and Awino have met the ancestors, and they know what they require. The play depicts a grand transfiguration through death and resurrection. Whether this can take place for Africa as a whole remains an open question.

Nevertheless, Mwaluko presents the conservative anti-queer point of view with love, understanding and compassion, which is something I have not heard from LGBTQ folks in the west. Here, liberalism and conservatism, individualism and authoritarianism are at war. LGBTQ activists have the ear of governments, corporations, and voters, and they have a lot of money and power. Mr. Mwaluko told me of one lonely queer activist in Africa who the police bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Queer folks usually have nothing but an isolated closet to protect them. They are integrated members of their local communities, and setting off for a big city is rarely an option. After all, they love their villages. I have long wondered aloud why gay people in the Deep South stay put, despite knowing that they are at risk. Why not move to New York or San Francisco? I did. The Festival taught me the power of heritage, place and family for a lot of folks. I do not hear discussions of this in American LGBTQ parlance. A gay Alabaman might love his homosexuality and Alabama. This makes things vastly more complicated for LGBTQ folks everywhere, and this is another reason why the Criminal Queerness Festival was so important.

Unlike the other three plays, Fatima Maan’s Jhaanjar Di Paanwan Chhankaar did play in her native Pakistan, to packed houses in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. The play, an adaptation of Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies Are Free, would not have been suitable for a New York audience if it hadn’t been for its backstory. To get the script past Pakistani censors, Maan had to present a simple, charming story that never mentions homosexuality or queerness, but still discusses themes that are near and dear to queer hearts.

Young, blind, musician Hamza lives alone in an apartment in the city. He meets and befriends his next door neighbor, Zaman, an actor starring in a film about a cross-dresser. At one point, Zaman performs his drag act for Hamza. Hamza and Zaman develop a close relationship, which implies gayness to the discerning audience member, but it is never explicit. There is much discussion of Hamza’s infirmity and his intense desire to live on his own. He has to report in with his mother, Mrs. Rubina Sohail, often, and finally, she comes for a visit. She insists that Hamza return home, where he can be properly looked after. After interacting with Hamza and free-spirited Zaman, she reluctantly changes her mind. Zaman breaks Hamza’s heart when he announces he’s leaving to live with the female director of the film in which he’s starring. The play makes the case that, yes, there will be heartbreak and suffering, but living in freedom is better than living under the shroud of paternalism.

Whereas Drowning in Cairo is about what happens to the oppressed under oppression, Maan’s play is about what happens to plays under censorship. She had to play an elaborate game of Twister to write about queer themes in an Islamic country where queerness is outlawed. I found that fascinating. It reminded me of some American films from the 1950s about unionism or sexuality that had to pass the censorship board. Everything is implied for the sophisticated viewer, and passes well over the heads of the more naive.

Mahima Saigal did a wonderful job portraying Mrs. Rubina Sohail. She was the consummate subcontinental mom, but without falling into the trap of the cliché. Later, she told me that Manvendra Singh Gohil, an Indian prince, the son and probable heir of the Maharaja of Rajpipla in Gujarat, and the first openly gay prince in the world, came to one of the performances. Apparently, he was delighted. The Criminal Queerness Festival did not ever get the attention I obviously think it deserved, but people all over the planet were aware of it and cheering it on. Every review I posted on my blog was visited by folks in foreign countries. Even if most of them were friends and family of the actors and creative staff, there was at least one prince who felt it was worth his while to attend a performance during his visit to New York for WorldPride.

When I spoke to Danish Farooqui, the straight actor who brilliantly portrayed the blind Hamza (he is not himself blind), he made an impassioned plea for liberal Islam. “Everyone is welcome to approach Allah in Islam,” he told me vehemently. “It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or queer or transgender. So long as you abide by the Five Pillars of Faith, anyone is more than welcome.” Many western LGBTQ folks despise Islam, because of the endless descriptions of egregious behavior on the part of fundamentalists who are felt to oppress women and gays. My view is more nuanced, but Mr. Farooqui’s speech to me (almost an outburst) came as a surprise.

The fourth and final play in the series, Chinese playwright Yilong Liu’s Joker, hinges on the unspoken, peculiar Chinese accommodation with homosexuality. Many years ago, it was described to me and my partner by a gay, Chinese-American friend of ours. He explained it from a male perspective. It’s OK to be gay, but keep it to yourself. You are expected to marry a woman, produce children, manage your family, and participate coherently in the community as a family; and what you do in private, behind closed doors with your close male friends can remain your business. So long as one’s homosexuality does not disturb the social order in any way, it will be ignored.

Homosexuality is not currently criminalized in China. The government even seems sensitive to the needs of some of its sexually marginalized citizens. However, the pace may seem glacial to many LGBTQ Chinese. Chinese leadership looks at governance with two things in mind: China contains more citizens than any country on earth, over one billion; and for millenia, social order and cohesion have been first on the mind of successful governments. Intelligent Chinese leadership understands the “wild-west” American mentality, but it feels it cannot tolerate it within China. There’s too much to lose.

However, life for many East Asian queer people freqently resembles a deal with the devil. Joker doesn’t take place in China. It portrays Filipinos living in Hawaii on the eve of Hawaii’s legalization of gay marriage in October 2013. Joe and Lin are married, and they are raising Lin’s teen-aged son, Ray, by her now dead husband. They run a small, struggling restaurant. Joe’s old friend, Frank, a witty gay man from the Phillipines, comes for a visit. He’s writing a piece about the impending passage of same-sex marriage in Hawaii. When they are alone, Frank pesters Joe about why he left Manila, where he was a notable figure, nicknamed Joker, fighting for gay rights. We don’t find out his secret until the end of the play. After moving to Hawaii, Joe had met and befriended Lin’s first husband, a closeted gay man. They had formed a sexual love-bond. When the husband died of lung cancer, he made Joe promise to marry Lin and raise Ray to majority. Then, gay marriage passes. The play argues that it will help prevent closets and lies, enabling people to marry each other directly, instead of having to marry someone of the opposite sex, to start a family, and to pose as a straight person.

Once again, the Criminal Queerness Festival confronts us with a portrait which is more complicated than the “same-sex marriage as panacea for all ills” allows. Joe gives up a life with which he feels comfortable to make a major commitment to Lin, keeping his death-bed promise a secret from her to spare her feelings, so that he can honor the man he loves like no other. That’s called love. I work hard to become a man like Joe, and if I ever achieve that goal, my partner will be a very fortunate man.

Life is not always about being out or being true to oneself. Often, it’s about sacrificing one’s own wants for the good of one’s partner, one’s friends, one’s community, one’s country, humanity, or God. Yilong Liu wouldn’t have written this play if he didn’t want to honor Joe’s choices. Joe is the hero of this play. Would an American have made a similar choice? Many would, but they are not the heros in an American society that puts career and self-actualization before all else. In America, Joe would have been a page twelve story.

The most surprising thing I learned from this Festival is that western LGBTQ activism, as we know it here in the U.S., can never hope to succeed in places around the world, where people place a premium on authority and tradition. All the playwrights loved their respective cultures, despite the fact that those cultures frequently demonize them. When they came to the U.S. to live and work, they were expatriots, not immigrants.

When I spoke to NQT Artistic Director, Adam Odsess-Rubin, he told me that the company didn’t just want to make good art, it primarily wanted to make art that would inspire LGBTQ activism. It should be obvious that I found the entire Festival to have achieved the highest quality of art, even from a “Eurocentric” viewpoint. The plays were harmonious, well-written, and powerful. The direction did them justice. The performances were persuasive and compelling. Mistakes didn’t matter (artists rarely make perfect art). Art for art’s sake took a backseat to a lot of other things for almost everyone involved with whom I spoke. Nevertheless, all participants can be proud to have this festival on their resume.

For many of the participants I spoke with, the Festival itself was an activist undertaking. It was a venue for oft marginalized artists to work freely and shine. Non-western artists frequently have few vehicles for their talents once they come here. While western actors may have a wide variety of parts for which to audition, the pool for Syrians or Filipinos is much smaller. Transgender and non-binary folks may be extremely limited in finding theater jobs they feel comfortable with. The Festival offered queer people of all backgrounds a warm, welcoming, respectful home in which to work, if only for a few months. Creating the space, and working in the space were both activist acts.

To return briefly to the death and resurrection metaphor, the Festival clearly opened my heart and mind to the voices of the many queer artists of color who worked so hard to make their voices heard. The metaphor is about personal and collective reconfiguration. Many souls, not just mine, were transformed by the power of these four plays and the shared experience of artists and audience on those warm June nights. I’ve come away a better man.

The Festival was well attended by the sorts of people represented in the Festival. Odsess-Rubin told me he thought about fifty percent of the attendees were friends and family, the rest were walk-ins. That’s excellent for theater at this level. He attributed it to the team’s advertising strategy. They cleverly scheduled the plays in and around Pride weekend. They also got a free push from the Pride organizing committee, who advertised the Festival in “Things to do while at Pride” brochures and websites. Audiences filled the small IRT theater, which has about 60–80 seats. Nevertheless, few of the notorious “white, cisgender gay and lesbian” folks seemed to have attended, and we were the ones most in need of it.

National Queer Theater has staged plays and readings in the past, but never before at this magnitude. Much of that has to do with lack of funds. In addition to traditional theater, it also offers LGBTQ youth and elder outreach. Teams of NQT staff go into communities to offer underprivileged youth, or LGBTQ elders at SAGE, experiences in theater—acting exercises, for example, or games meant to inspire an interest in theater. Participants come away with increased self-confidence, and coping skills they never knew they had.

I am something of a loner, not by design, but by fate. When WorldPride came upon us at the beginning of June, I figured my partner and I would hide in our apartment until it was over. The last time we ventured outside during Pride, I found myself at a bar, waiting to order a drink. The crowd at the bar was three deep. It took 20 minutes to order a vodka tonic, and then the bartender was so overwhelmed, he splashed some vodka in a plastic cup, filled the rest with tonic so sloppy that when the drink got to me it was only three-quarters full. I think I paid $12 for it.

WorldPride was different for me. The tremendous things I learned and felt, the tears of heartache and joy I shed, the new worlds of knowledge and insight I gained as a result of the excellent work of everyone at the Criminal Queerness Festival, made this Pride—WorldPride—the best Pride of my life. From the bottom of my heart, Thank You National Queer Theater.

—PUP . July 2019