In this daily five-part series for the DCPA NewsCenter, we introduce you to the plays and playwrights featured at the Denver Center’s 2020 Colorado New Play Summit through February 23. Over the past 15 years, 31 Summit plays have gone on to be premiered as fully staged productions on the DCPA Theatre Company’s mainstage season. Today: Yussef El Guindi, author of ‘Hotter Than Egypt.’ Video above by DCPA Video Producer David Lenk and Senior Arts Journalist John Moore.
An American couple’s marriage crumbles against the background of revolution
The play at a glance: No matter where you live, the ups and downs of married life are universal. For a middle-aged American couple traveling to Egypt, their relationship is put to the test when an old connection leads to new temptation. Drawing from the political, cultural and religious realities of living in the region, this fiery drama set in the heat of Cairo pits loyalty against attraction as its characters grapple with the ever-changing challenges of staying committed to their partners.
The playwright at a glance: Yussef El Guindi, who was born in Egypt, raised in London and is now based in Seattle, often examines the collision of ethnicities, cultures and politics that face Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans. El Guindi “specializes in cultural and geographical displacement, from alienated couples to the promises and frustrations of immigration, and the ways people maneuver through foreignness and belonging,” wrote the Seattle Times. El Guindi holds an MFA in playwriting from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Among his many awards are the Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award and the 2010 Middle East America Distinguished Playwright Award.
Here are excerpted highlights from Senior Arts Journalist John Moore’s conversation with Yussef El Guindi:
John Moore: Introduce us to your play.
Yussef El Guindi: Hotter Than Egypt is essentially about Paul and Jean, this American couple who come to Egypt. The man has business interests in Egypt, so they are combining their wedding anniversary with his work. But within a days, trouble within the marriage starts to percolate up, and it leads to the dissolution of their marriage. And when it falls apart, their two Egyptian tour guides become drawn into the crisis as well.
John Moore: And what would you say your play is about?
Yussef El Guindi: I would say it explores the uneven power dynamics between these Western tourists and the locals showing them around; and the dreams triggered – and shared – when these four characters from different cultural backgrounds meet.
John Moore: You began this play during the Egypt Uprising of 2011. How did it evolve into a more personal play about two dissolving couples set against the backdrop of a dissolving nation?
Yussef El Guindi: Everything changed. I was 50 pages into the play, and I had an ending in mind that commented on what was happening in Egypt during the uprising. But by 2013, things started getting very fluid on the ground there. The revolution was over, and by the next year, cynicism had set in. That’s when I realized I had no idea how to wrap this play up – because I didn’t know what was going politically transpire in Egypt. So I put the play away. I picked it up again in 2018, and when I looked over it, I realized this play really is about these two couples, and that the revolution had always been just a backdrop. At its heart this play is about the dissolution of a marriage, and it’s about people who are trying to find their personal freedoms as they break away.
John Moore: And the personal is always political, isn’t it?
Yussef El Guindi: Absolutely. What is any political struggle? When you feel not in control, you fight to better your life. And that is one of the things we struggle for in our personal lives as well. When you are in a marriage, you want to be respected, you want to feel secure, you want to feel like there’s a certain equality. You want to feel seen. But sometimes in marriages, we stop feeling seen. That is especially true of the American wife, Jean. At one point she says she feels like a ghost in her own marriage. And sometimes as citizens, we stop feeling seen as well. I think that those real people who were fighting for their political and economic freedom in the Egyptian revolution echo what is going on in the private lives of this married couple in my play. I was going to bring more of the revolution into the story but then I realized that now I don’t have to. I can just focus on the dynamic of this couple and the dissolution of their marriage.
John Moore: What is the significance that you have chosen for this couple to be Americans visiting Egypt?
Yussef El Guindi: I’ve always been generally curious about tourists abroad. When I go back to Egypt every year to visit my family, I see American tourists, German tourists, English tourists, Japanese tourists. And I’ve always tried to look at Egypt from their point of view. I feel for tourists because they’re out of their comfort zones. There’s an excitement in seeing something new and exploring, but you’re also in a very vulnerable position. You are walking into the unknown. That’s part of the excitement. But visiting Egypt isn’t like going to London or Paris. It’s not a Western culture. It’s a different feel. It’s a different aesthetic. And when I see an American couple in that setting, I think, “I want to write a play about them.” Because usually, the dynamic is the other way around. You see stories about Arabs or Muslims trying to adjust to new lives in the West. I wanted to write about foreigners coming to my hometown.
John Moore: When people leave your play, what do you want them to be thinking or talking about?
Yussef El Guindi: As a playwright, my main goal is always that the audience leaves feeling thoroughly entertained. My No. 1 rule of playwriting is you cannot bore your audience. My concern is that the audience is entertained, and that what’s happening on stage is involving them emotionally and intellectually. If I’ve done my job, the audience will be invested in the lives of these characters and care about them by the end.
John Moore: How did you feel when you first learned that Hotter Than Egypt was going to be a featured play at the 2020 Colorado New Play Summit?
Yussef El Guindi: What a wonderful thing it was when I got that call. I actually didn’t believe it at first.
John Moore: The Summit distinguishes itself from many other new-play festivals because it gives you a week to work on the play and put it before an audience, and then another week to incorporate what you learned and put it before another audience. How useful is that second week to you as a playwright?
‘If I’ve done my job, the audience will be invested in the lives of these characters and care about them by the end.‘ – Yussef El Guindi
Yussef El Guindi: I think that’s huge. Very often at festivals, you rehearse for a few days and you present your play in front of an audience, and then you walk away and you start looking for another festival to try. What is so great about this Summit is I get to hear it over two weeks. That first audience told me exactly what’s working and what’s not working with my play. And now I get to go away, do some rewrites, come back with new pages – and then I get another shot in front of an audience. I will get to find out first-hand whether my rewrites worked or didn’t work. That, I think, is unique and huge, and for me personally that makes all the difference in terms of developing a play.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
- Mary Kathryn Nagle and Suzan Shown Harjo, Reclaiming One Star
- L M Feldman and Lewis Merklin, Another Kind of Silence
- Benjamin Benne, Alma
- Jessica Kahkoska, In Her Bones
- Yussef El Guindi, Hotter than Egypt
Photo gallery: Hotter Than Egypt
Follow the DCPA on social media @DenverCenter and at the DCPA’s online NewsCenter.
- By Yussef El Guindi
- Directed by Chris Coleman
- Dramaturgy by Nakissa Etemad
Cast and crew:
- Paul: Gareth Saxe
- Seif: Wasim No’Mani
- Maha: Monika Jolly
- Jean: Kirsten Potter
- Boatman/Museum Guard/Doorman: Alex Purcell
- Stage Directions: Ryan Omar Stack
The 15th Annual Colorado New Play Summit
- Launch Weekend: February 15-16
- Festival Weekend: February 21-23. All-inclusive Festival Weekend packages include five play readings and two fully staged world premieres, plus meals and special events
- Details and packages available at denvercenter.org
The 2020 Colorado New Play Summit is presented by AT&T, Sheri & Lee Archer/New Wave Enviro, The Joy S. Burns Commission in Women’s Playwriting, Daniel L. Ritchie, Semple Brown Design, Robert & Carole Slosky, and Transamerica.