Dima Mikhayel Matta has previously written about her hometown with words like “In Beirut the street smells of jasmine and coffee, and the morning call to prayer mixes with church bells.”
Was it lyrical? Yes, Matta, a queer playwright from Lebanon, said in a recent video interview. Was it rosy too? Yes.
“I used to write short stories that romanticize Beirut,” she said, “because it’s ‘poetic’, right?”
Matta’s autobiographical play “This Isn’t a Memorized Script, This Is a Well-rehearsed Story” is one of three that premieres this week at New York’s National Queer Theater’s Criminal Queerness Festival, showcasing innovative new stories from LGBTQ presents artists from countries that restrict LGBTQ rights.
And with this project she made a decision: no more romanticization.
With Beirut, she wanted to “face how I think about it and how so many of us think about it,” she said of the city, which has suffered crises over the past year such as a massive explosion in its port, economic collapse, political instability and pandemic. “Because it’s difficult to live there and it’s getting harder and harder.”
Held outdoors Tuesday through Saturday at Lincoln Center and near the United Nations, the festival is part of Lincoln Center’s Pride program, which also includes a multi-hyphenated concert by artist Taylor Mac on Friday.
Adam Odsess-Rubin, Artistic Director of the National Queer Theater, founded the festival in 2018 with the Egyptian playwright Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, who recently emigrated to the USA.
“There really wasn’t room for the kind of stories I wanted to tell,” says Elsayigh, who is now co-producing the festival. “I wanted to create a space for stories about queer people outside of the US and outside of the western context.”
This year’s plays – which also include “﹤﹤ when we write with ashes ﹥﹥” by the Mexican playwright Victor I. Cazares, and a staged reading by the Iraqi playwright Martin Yousif Zebari “Layalina” deal with topics such as addiction, fluid identity and global and social change.
In other words, there are no works to showcase in his home country, Zebari said, where same-sex marriages are illegal and queer people have no protection from discrimination.
“It’s really risky for the writers to share these pieces,” said Odsess-Rubin. “They might fear persecution even if they email the script.”
In interviews, however, the playwrights emphasized that, although their works stem from their specific life experiences in countries that criminalize queerness, they contain topics that everyone can identify with.
For Matta, it was her complicated relationship with Beirut – a feeling that people who have spent most of their lives in the same place can relate to.
“The people who attended my rehearsals said they see New York the same way,” she said.
Cazares, a Tow playwright in residence at the New York Theater Workshop who uses the gender-neutral pronouns she and she, said they have felt pressures in the past to produce works that gloss over the less idyllic aspects of life on the border .
“As a queer Latinx playwright who hit the market in 2013, I encountered a lot of opposition from other Latinx producers who didn’t want to produce work about drugs, guns, or gangs,” said Cazares. “But that was my job, and it was also my lived experience of the border. I experienced a very violent drug war. You suffer from nights when you worry about your family. “
Cazares’ play, a Mexico-based love story, is based on her experiences as an addict and as someone whose family left high school and sent her to a rural Illinois town to “find Jesus Christ” when they came out. (Cazares and her parents have now reconciled.)
“It was a very personal story for me,” they said. “But it’s not something I am reluctant to share. I want to destigmatize addiction and HIV positivity. I want people who have had these lived experiences to go away and not feel alone. “
For Zebari, who is making his debut as a playwright with “Layalina”, it was important to tell a differentiated story of the community that he calls SWANA – Southwest Asia and North Africa.
“As an actor, I never said anything when I felt like my voice was a filler,” he said. “But now I can tell my story as a playwright.”
Odsess-Rubin and Elsayigh said the festival would not exist in an ideal world because its pieces would be produced elsewhere in New York. A recent study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition found that 81 percent of writers and directors in 18 major nonprofit theaters across the city were white.
Cazares said they had opportunities “if I had written the happy story or the more marketable one, let’s all sing about conchas-and-abuelita, it would have been produced.”
According to the three playwrights, the festival audience will likely be predominantly white. But they had their dreams of who would be there on the opening night. Cazares said her past selves. Zebari said his father, even though having him there, would be tantamount to coming out – something he hasn’t done with his family and is not ready for yet.
Matta said: “I would be very happy if a homophobic, racist person ends up in the audience and is too ashamed to leave and has to stay for an hour while I basically share things that speak against everything that person is about believes. “
“That would be very amusing,” she added. “My goal is not to make you comfortable. I am not here to explain why it is okay for me to exist. I’m here to transport you somewhere for an hour and leave you with more questions than answers. “
Criminal Queerness Festival
Tuesday to Saturday; nationalqueertheater.org.