Hope and Love in Arab Spring :: Gil Perez-Abraham and Sharif Afifi on 'We Live in Cairo'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday May 23, 2019

There's a difference between freedom and privilege. Freedom is something that belongs, as a birthright, to everyone in a society where freedom is enshrined; privilege, however, is something granted to the few at the expense of the many.

That's one of the many undercurrents one might perceive in "We Live in Cairo," a new musical by brothers Daniel Lazour and Patrick Lazour in which Christian and Muslim youths join together, some with connections and some without; matters of wealth, religion, and status matter less than a shared desire for freedom and democracy. The show follows six young Egyptians as the Arab Spring comes to their homeland in 2011, toppling the regime of Hosni Mubarak. But jump forward to 2013, and a military coup ends the short-lived (and controversial) rule of Mohamed Morsi. A new strongman — Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — takes over. Was it worth it? Is freedom ever anything more than an elusive goal, obtainable only rarely in human history and then only for brief, blessed periods?

The Lazour brothers present an album's worth of original songs, drawing on both Western and Middle Eastern influences, as they explore the ways in which members of a passionate opposition can unite with a strong commonality of purpose — but then find their alliances breaking down as they begin to pull in separate directions. Strongmen, of course, thrive in the gaps where people of good will and passionate purpose diverge (hello, America of 2016!). But freedom is a deep yearning in the human spirit. Maybe there's hope for the world even now, even as strongmen and nationalism seem to be sweeping the globe and overtaking history.

EDGE had a chance to chat about the themes of hope and social change with two of the stars of the world premiere production that the American Repertory Theater is about to unveil. American-born Gil Perez-Abraham, to son of Venezuelan and Lebanese immigrants, plays Hassan; Sharif Afifi, who is British and half-Egyptian, plays Karim. Both actors are accomplished stage performers whose credits extend to large screen (Afifi appeared in "Mama Mia: Here We Go Again") and small (Perez-Abraham has appeared on "Pose" and "The Young Pope").

Their characters are young Muslims, both of them artists. Karim is an established street artist whose murals inspire and excite the young people of Cairo, and Hassan wishes to establish himself as a street artist in turn. Their connection through art parallels other relationships depicted in the play, including a romance between a Muslim and a Christian and the way a dedicated activist inspires courage in less bold colleagues... even though (as the script's directions put it) there is sometimes something "sinister" about her fervent political passions.

But there's something more between Karim and Hassan: Something that even a Middle East in the throes of hope and a massive push for change might not be able to accept. The actors spoke with EDGE about that, and so much more.

EDGE: "We Live in Cairo" is about the Arab Spring of 2011 and its aftermath in Egypt, and it tells the story of a group of young artists and activists who work toward reform in their country — only to see things get worse despite their successes. This is potentially depressing stuff and not what you expect from a musical — but do you find this to be a hopeful story?

Gil Perez-Abraham: A lot of it is up to pacing, and the way a performer handles it. If we're all just really leaning into the pain, then we're not being true to the Egyptian people. I know this. Much of my family is in Caracas, and they are going through revolution right now. The sad things they go through, they don't even realize it's sad until after it's over. I think for us on stage, we're really challenging ourselves to keep pace, pace, pace — so that by the time it starts landing, the audience is actually not ahead of us — they are behind us.

Sharif Afifi: My take home shows us not the brightest of places because it shows how the revolution ultimately fell apart — but I think there always has to be hope, because if there isn't, what is the point in any of us even having lived? We as a collective build these societies that we now function under, and I do think — though I don't know how, and though I do sometimes fall into moments of deep despair thinking about it — I think that if we don't allow ourselves to hope then there will never be change. There's so much power in hope, even hope without action, because it signifies that there is still a spark of an idea that things can change. Though it seems that in so many places when that kind of movement happens it gets quashed so quickly, I do think it stirs something in people enough that give us another couple decades, and I think that — I hope that — societies in those parts of the world will really start to be changed.

But what I do think is very clear is that young people in these places are feeling more empowered than they ever used to, and have a deep want for change because they are scrutinizing their societies and seeing the flaws for exactly what they are. They are not relying just on the news. That the beauty — and also the downfall — but the beauty of the internet is the freedom of information that it's given people. It's a big part of our show that it's how the revolution came about: Technology facilitated these people getting information in a way that they couldn't before. I hope we can wield the power of that and that good will come from it. I remain hopeful about it.

EDGE: This play really is an homage to the young people in Egypt, and all over the world, who dare to stand up and face off with the powers that be in order to advocate for themselves and their future. Is that something you each can personally relate to in some way?

Gil Perez-Abraham: I really do — I really, really do. Like I was saying before, I have a lot of family going through revolution right now, and a lot of days are spent on a WhatsApp feed, just watching. My cousins sent videos of them marching. Another of my cousins said he was on the bridge overlooking where the tanks were running people over in Caracas recently. As a young person in 2019, the only conclusion we can come to is that it is our job to shoulder this responsibility and to keep moving forward, whether that be, in the case, Egypt; shouldering the realities of your country — or, in another case, I think personally, doing what's best for your loved ones and the people you're around. Maybe there's a limit to how much you can fight against an institution.

EDGE: In America we see young people standing up when it comes to guns and climate change. This seems like it's part of that same spirit.

Gil Perez-Abraham: I think it's absolutely in the same spirit. I have felt such a kinship with the Black Lives Matter movement my whole life; and I've felt such a kinship with the LGBTQ movement, especially now. And I've noticed how much more open people are as the years have gone by. I've noticed that more and more people are allies, and I think that has to be because there are so many people who have the bravery to stand up and say the truth, or stand up and say, "We won't take it anymore."

It's interesting because in America, I think, it's just as brutal as in other countries; we're so used to it being publicized. So, realistically, a tank running over ten people in Caracas, I think, is really no different than police officers killing thirty-three young black people in America in a year. I really see a huge similarity — we live in a pretty brutal country. I am terrified of our police and armed forces in this country, I think a lot of us are. Trans people get targeted; gay people get targeted; black people are targeted, Latino people are targeted, all foreign people are targeted. It's a very dangerous country to live in if you're not in the right class.

EDGE: Sharif, you play Karim, who is a street artist, and Gil, you play Hassan, who wants to paint the kind of murals that Karim creates. How personally do each of you relate to the characters you're playing — and if you haven't got a direct connection (such as faith or nationality), how do you establish your connection with your character?

Sharif Afifi: It's funny because it's tapped into a much deeper part of me than I thought it was going to. I'm a gay man [and] I've never actually had the chance to play a queer-identifying character in any form — at least not obviously. Maybe sort of in the background, but I have never grappled with a full character who is gay. I am actually half Egyptian, so it's been interesting having to dig into that world because that part of the family doesn't know I'm gay. I realized that actually there was a big part of myself that had remained quite saddened and locked up because of it. I've found so many affinities with this character; what it means to feel like people can't know who you are.

What I love about playing Karim is that it isn't about trying to play a gay character in a way that we as Westerners understand. It's much more about the essence of what it is for this guy to be gay, which is just about his wanting to love freely and openly, and not necessarily about wanting to claim a physical set of behaviors or to fit into some idea of a community. It's literally about the pure want of what it is to be equal. So it's nice to be able to play in the emotional sphere of that.

I do think that in a Western-tinged world it's very hard to separate behavior and ideas and cultural movements from the emotional balance point of what it means to be fully queer-identifying, if that makes any sense.

Gil Perez-Abraham: I have an extreme relation to Hassan, maybe a lucky one. I was raised very, very fundamentalist religious. Extremely. To the point that I would have to say the majority of my adult life has been spent redefining who I am and fighting people who would disagree — who make it their job to undermine my redefinition [of myself]. And then, additionally, I also relate on a class level. I was very lower class growing up — very lower class. And I stayed relatively lower class until being able to become an actor, in which case I would say anybody who is a working actor is relatively privileged.

There's a huge thing here, I think, with me and Hassan, where I think about a young person who is underneath the thumb of the religion he was born into; underneath the thumb of the class that he was born into, and then the big difference between Hassan and me is that there is no escaping the caste that Hassan lives in. That's where, actually, some of the countries outside of America are much worse than America — there is little to zero chance of elevation, whereas in American possibly you can find yourself a scholarship or a way out; you can find yourself a minimum wage job.

It's really interesting to toeing that line because that is the place where we are separate. I've been able to elevate out of my class. Hassan would never be able to. And I think as we get to that second part of the play [where the Arab Spring gives way to a failed new government and a military coup that ushers in even worse conditions], that's a lot of what's happening with Hassan — there's a reality coming clear to him that in as military-controlled Egypt, no matter who I think I am, or no matter who I want to be, there's a reality of what I can't be. Especially when it comes to a relationship with the Karim character. That's an impossibility.

EDGE: There's a hint of a gay relationship between Hassan and Karim.

Gil Perez-Abraham: A hint, yeah.

EDGE: When it came to that, did you two discuss how to portray that relationship, or maybe get some notes from creators Daniel and Patrick Lazour about what they wanted to do with that?

Gil Perez-Abraham: I've been developing Hassan for a year now. I've been with [the Lazour brothers] at the New York Theater workshop residency; I was with them at the Broadway lab that we did in January, and I'm with them now. So we've been having the conversation about Hassan for a long time, and he's grown quite a bit, to a very beautiful, well-arced character. And then when Sharif showed up, that's when I think things became perfect. One of the things about creating a new show that's always clear is that you're looking for the actor who really embodies the role in a way — and not just embodies it physically or emotionally, but someone who has done a lot of work and is coming in thinking about the given circumstances of it, and thinking about how to make that thing elevated, thinking about how to tell that story. And Sharif just brought so much color to the role that all of a sudden we had a little bit of what you might call a cliquey moment. Sharif and I were able to do a lot our own work outside to then, which is our biggest challenge now, which is, How do we tell that story in little moments? Which is exactly how it would be in Egypt. Like, how do you share a glance? How do you slip and catch each other's hand? How do we catch each other's shoulders? Where is there a moment when we're not paying attention to anybody and it's just us? It's just really, really toeing that line so that it's obvious to whoever who is watching it, but whoever isn't watching it isn't sitting there thinking to themselves, "Oh, I'm watching two out guys on stage." Because that's not the reality of Egypt, unfortunately.

Sharif Afifi: It's such a delicate line. As someone who is gay, so is in that community of people, obviously I think most people who have gone through a time in their life when they couldn't fully be that can re-touch that in order to find where that line is. Obviously, it's very different when you're playing a character who is in a society where they can't be out. It's a gift, really, because we've been able to explore how to show two people who are connected to our world when you can't fully be open about that. It's not necessarily in the behavior of the characters, but more about our demonstration of our connection, or our chemistry. We're still exploring that; we're in tech now, and so in a whole new space, but we're trying to find the subtleties in it so that in collective scenes where it's not just us on stage, where we're trying to find those moments that we can explore that, whether it's an obvious idea of a sort of chemistry but not all these other characters on stage are going to be aware of it. That's the thing we're still playing with.

We've had a dialogue with [the Lazour brothers] about it. I mean, the show is written by two queer-identifying men, so I think they've built some of their understanding into that and it's an ongoing discussion, but interestingly it's a thing that when you get talking about it — we have a female director, Taibi, and she's fantastic — but I feel like even when you have the conversation with those people it's still something that comes down to the [choices made by] the performers because it's based on when you do come from a world where you find yourself asking how you come across. You can't explain the emotional subtext of that to a person. Yeah, the dialogue is ever-growing and ever-changing; it's quite a nuanced thing to try and demonstrate, I think.

EDGE: Though it had already happened, the A.R.T. also put on a related event called "Hurriyya Night: An LGBT+ Arab Community and Allies Gathering." Did you attend? Was it educational, or that fed into your process?

Sharif Afifi: Yes, I did attend. Most of the cast did, apart from a couple of people who were unable to because of other engagements. I spoke at it — quite unexpectedly! — about Karim's storyline. It was a really beautiful evening. I'd never been to anything like that — a collective night for queer people, even just on the level of talking, and especially not a night centered around LGBT Arabs. There was a woman called Fatima who spoke about her alienation, really, from first if all her own community and then coming over here and being alienated because she was foreign, and then dealing with that double-edged sword of being a minority in every sense, and how that has affected her. It was very eye-opening. Overall, the thing about the night was it was such an important reminder — and it's a theme I feel I'm touching on it in everything I'm saying, but I feel there's so much work for us to do in minority communities, especially the LGBT community.

What my eyes were opened to, and I've been feeling this way for a long time, is that there is a lot of racism in that community — or at least elitism, even if it's not racism — and I also just think that as a community that's gaining more and more rights in our part of the world, we're not extending our eye or our hand to people from other parts of the world who haven't got even a smidgen of what we have in terms of our freedom. The most powerful thing that hit me is that we have so much more work to do in that area and until we are ensuring that that is the case, or fighting for it at least as a community, then our work is nowhere near done.

"We Live in Cairo" runs May 14 — June 16 at the A.R.T.'s Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square. For tickets and more information, please go to https://americanrepertorytheater.org/shows-events/we-live-in-cairo/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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