Home ARTS & THEATER Breaking Out of Queer Boxes

Breaking Out of Queer Boxes



Pooya Mohseni: I know. It’s so… But there is almost in essence it’s like how does this fit into my life as a bigger picture? But of course, me being the sassy queer bitch that I am, it has this idea, I’m like, “I want it to be something that I look back on and say,” I’m like, “Wow, I was an insane sassy bitch and thank God I was that person,” and then laugh myself to death. It’s like, see, that’s the part of me that’s not so Iranian because I’ll take the death part, but I’m like “I want it to be a moment that I’m going to laugh so hard at the insane life I had that I’m going to laugh off the bed and crack my head open and die,” and that’s going to be the way that I’m going to go. But when I look at it at the larger picture, then it feels like what is it that I want to do today?

I have this belief that it’s like if you wake up that day and you think this is the last day I’m going to have, how can I make this day count? If you have the good fortune, again as an Iranian person who was born in a revolution and who grew up during war, if you have the good fortune to still be alive by the end of the day and be able to go to sleep, then hopefully you have the thought of “Hopefully tomorrow I can do whatever I didn’t get to do today.” In that sense, that gives me so much peace in a way that I’m like, “You can only do what you can do today.”

It’s like being an actor, this idea that you’re always waiting to make it and for the thing to happen and the person. But I try to, as somebody who has come very close to death many times in my life, either being assaulted by a stranger or almost being run over by a car or being arrested by the morality police in Iran or having been in an abusive relationship, and as someone who has also lost a parent, I have great respect for living, living that day. That’s why I always say, I’m like, “People think I’m a very bougie, sophisticated person,” but I’m like, “I’m a very simple person in the fact that what are my needs and desires today?”

It all comes down to: what is it that I want to leave behind? I want my life to have had value. As someone who has gone through so much, I’m always looking for something that can justify the things that the younger version of me went through. I want to be able to give meaning to the fact that my mom at forty-nine or fifty decided to leave her country so that her trans child could have a life. I want to feel that I am putting my life to some good use that the young queer Iranians or the young SWANA queer folks or it’s like whoever in some way can see something in my story that will help them lead a more centered, more authentic, more truthful, more self-embracing life. That whatever part of my journey can accommodate that, then that gives my life meaning.

I am trans, yes. I am a woman in my forties, yes. I am an immigrant, yes. I was born in Iran, yes. I’m all of those things, and I feel that every time I walk into a room. Last year I had the good fortune of originating a role in Sanaz Toossi’s play English at Atlantic Theater that has since won an Obie. I’ve won an Obie and the rest of my cast, and a Lucille Lortel Award, and it just won Pulitzer for Best Drama. On one side, that had nothing to do with my transness, but it had a lot to do with my Iranianess. But two years before that, I did She He Me by Raphael Khouri through National Queer Theater. Yes, the character was a Lebanese trans woman, so that was my trans side. When people ask me like, “Well, what do you want?”

I’m like, “I want good stories that portrays characters who are humans, who have agency, who are not written by some, for lack of a better term, a colonialist,” whether it happens to be by race, ethnicity, or gender supremacy that is writing a character that I’m going to play as this other fetishized, tokenized, single faceted character that is only there to satisfy the desire of the writer that knows nothing about the character they’ve written. As an artist, as a consultant… When I go in as a consultant, I always tell people “I want to honor your story,” and hopefully it’s a story I can honor. “I want to honor your story, but I want to help you make this particular character that you obviously don’t have a full grasp on and help you write this character in a way that, when people watch this or read this, they’re not going to think “oh, that character is a full character and this character, I don’t know why the hell this character is here.” We’ve all read those stories.

I always say the simplest example that everybody can understand is the older I’m getting, the more I’m having a problem with female characters that are written by old white men because their agency is just to accommodate the hero’s journey, which is usually a man, or characters of color that are there to either be saved by a white character or to be the oracles along the path of the white character to find itself. I feel in that sense, I have this joy, this curiosity when people want to write really good stories and they are seeking help, I’m more than happy to be there. When they have written characters that they want these characters to be fully fleshed out and be something that really connects, I want to do that. Sometimes it’s one part of me, sometimes it’s another part of me, sometimes it’s all of me, all of it together.

I feel as an artist who has gone through the things that I’ve gone through as a human in my life, the historical things that I’ve been privy to, that I try to do anything I touch as best as I possibly can. If I can’t, if it’s beyond my scope or if it’s something that, like Bazeed said, if it’s something that’s going to take another fifty years for us to get to that scope of being able to realize, it’s like you can write queer characters without it being labeled as a queer story. It’s a human story. Even if that’s the case, then I will just try to do the best that I can and hope that the people that come after me, they will find some value in what I’ve did and then add to it and it’s like take it to places that I would’ve never even dreamed of. That gives me comfort, that all I have to be is just one ring in a long mesh of evolution.

Marina Johnson: Pooya, just jumping off of one of the many things that you said, because we could I think take this in a bunch of different directions, but we actually have Raphael Khouri and Sivan who… The writer and then director of She He Me on different parts of this season, and we’d love to hear what that was like for you, the play itself, your work on it. Can you expand more upon that?

Storytelling is a divine occupation.

Pooya Mohseni: It was beautiful because I had never seen anything like it, that there are three characters, I mean three queer characters, but then to be more specific, there’s a trans woman who has a child who is grappling with being able to be a parent in a world that wants to take that away from her. Then on the other side, a gay man and a gender nonconforming person. Obviously it felt very close to my heart because these characters, one was Lebanese, I don’t know if the other one was Saudi, I don’t remember exactly where each character, but our neck of the woods, and the things that they had to live through. That part of it, in a way, made it hard because I knew, from personal knowledge and experience, what these characters must be going through. But it gave me joy because these characters were written and Sivan’s direction, which just had such generosity, focus, and respect for these characters, and of course Rafael’s writing.

It was at the height of the pandemic, so we basically got to do the whole thing in isolation on Zoom, which I think was very appropriate in a way for the play because all of these characters were isolated from their families, from their immediate worlds, and then somehow they were connecting across borders and distance and all of that. It was heartbreaking, but it was also… I’m getting emotional, but I’m just going to go ahead. It made you feel wonderful for being able to tell these stories and then have, like the character that I was portraying that was based on a real person, to then have that person have seen that performance and have been moved by it. I always say, “Storytelling, it’s a divine occupation,” because I mean, where would we be… I hear so many people say so many different things. It’s like storytelling is the soul of society. It’s the equalizer. It’s the thing that shows us society in a way that we don’t get to see it because when we’re in, it’s so hard. It’s kind of missing the tree for the forest.

But as a storyteller, you get to show people things that they may not see, even if it might be right next to them, but you can also show them how things can be. You can show them possibility, you can show them hope, you can show them the insidious violence that exists in a society in a way that we’re not comfortable addressing it in real life, but then you get to go and see it in a play or in a movie or in a reading, and it imprints on you, somewhere in your mind, in your soul, whether it gets you to see reality in a way you’d never thought before or it gets you to feel that you’re not alone or that your story has value.

All of that was true about She He Me, all of that, that I hope many, many queer SWANA people got to, at the very least, see a play on Zoom because most of them live in countries that they cannot see a queer play in person at the fear of… I don’t have to explain what those fears are. But to be able to do that, that’s what… I don’t even call myself an artist. Artist, it’s so abstract. I mean, yeah, I was a painter and a drawer. Yeah, sure, if you want to call that art. I’m a storyteller, that’s all I am. People have been doing it for as long as there have been people and they will continue to do it. It’s because I see the value of those stories. That is how we keep our hearts alive.

Marina Johnson: Oh, Pooya, thank you so much for that. I mean, I think just the phrase that I feel like of the many that I can pull from that, like storytelling is a divine occupation. We’ve all been in this world of being able to tell a story for the first time, you said it was so special because you hadn’t seen it. That’s I think some of the beauty of what’s coming out of this work right now and work that you and Bazeed are doing. It’s so moving to hear about that experience. I hope that everyone gets to see this piece soon, whether it’s on Zoom or not. I think Zoom theatre gets a lot of hate, but I love that we can watch these plays while people are in different countries together, what a beautiful thing.

Pooya Mohseni: It was the equalizer, and I don’t want anybody to forget, Zoom became a theatre equalizer. People that were not in New York, people that were not in a cosmopolitan area, people that usually wouldn’t travel—they got access. I know that it’s in New York or some artistic hub were like, “live theatre.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s wonderful.” But like you said, Zoom became an equalizer. I am very grateful that that happened because I think a lot more people got to see a lot more things that in a regular day at an actual theatre would not have necessarily seen.

Marina Johnson: Agreed. Bazeed, talking about other plays that, something that I haven’t seen before, I first discovered your work in an anthology; Peace Camp Org is a queer anti-Zionist musical comedy about summer camp, which was really exciting to read there. You’ve mentioned that it accidentally got you into theatre, so I want to hear about that. But also, Nabra and I at MENATMA in Michigan this past year, got to hear some of your full length play, Kilo Batra: In Death More Radiant, and so that was really exciting to see too. It was something that I had gotten emails about for a while that was like, “This work is being developed.” I was like, “Oh, tell me more.” I would love to hear more about I think how this accidentally got you into theatre with Peace Camp Org, and then also the stories that you’ve been telling since that are stories that I think haven’t existed in any way like this.

Bazeed: Yeah, thank you for the question. Peace Camp Org is actually an autobiographical work and is in an anthology with Raphael Khouri as well. We were in the same festival together. Actually, that’s where we first met was our work being curated together into this thing and then ending up in this book. But how I wrote that play, I mentioned that just because it’s funny just how small actually queer theatre world is, and then when you add the also SWANA thing, and it’s sort of like we all have already met each other in various… I think I did a reading with Pooya one time in New York a while ago. Anyway, so I just mentioned that to be like, “Oh my God, the web of us is pretty nuts.” Anyway.

Pooya Mohseni: We’re taking over.

Bazeed: We’re taking over. That’s it. We are the forest, we are the trees. For Peace Camp Org, that was actually… I was not writing theatre at all when I started that project and wasn’t thinking that it was going to be a play. I had quit my full-time corporate job to try to be a writer and also try to do all the performance things that I had been interested in that I didn’t have time for. I was like, “This is your time to be creative, , just do all the things.” Dan Fishback, who’s a queer theatremaker himself, had this fellowship where folks who were queer who had not done a ton of solo performance could apply and, over four months I think, sort of develop a work together. It was like we’d meet for six hours, sort of get prompts, we were constantly making stuff. It was just this very creative workshop environment that I had not ever really been in, and there was a showcase thing at the end.

For that, I wrote a twenty-minute, one-person piece called Peace Camp Org that was about my experience going to the summer camp when I was sixteen years old as an Egyptian delegate to this place that, at the time, was this magical, idyllic, just heaven-scape that turns out to kind of be a nonprofit, industrial complex, sort of greenwashing Zionist project ultimately that was doing a lot of bringing kids together to make peace, but not actually talk about structural things ever. Or there was no diversity of funding sources of who wanted this project to exist and state department involvement and just like everything weird.

But that was the story of how I came to America, and it connected to stories of my relationship with my mother at the time who was ailing, sick, and dying. That turned into this autobiographical anti-Zionist musical comedy about summer camp. When I was curated into a festival the next year to kind of expand it and was paired with Sarah Schulman, who was already doing a lot of writing about pinkwashing and doing her own anti-Zionist activism work, and we were paired for that festival. She gave me the full hour that we had to develop the play, and she was the dramaturg for it at the time. That was my first play. That’s how I started writing for theatre. Then, the play got into the Fresh Fruit Festival, it got into this Global Queer Plays Festival in London with Raphael. It got published… It just had a life that I wasn’t expecting for it. It’s won a couple of awards, I’m very happy to say.

Nabra Nelson: You did not tiptoe your way into the field. I feel like that’s a huge project, so many intersections.

Bazeed: As it turns out, no, but it was… As it turned out, no. It was great. It was an incredible thing to be able to say that the very first work that I ever had put up in New York at La MaMa Theater was this queer anti-Zionist project; I wouldn’t expect to be able to say that. Also, the happy accidents that had to happen and not… I actually shouldn’t say accidents because there were people who were invested in a particular story being told, and they’re the reason it got told, whether that’s Dan Fishback with the fellowship, like Sarah Schulman with developing the play with me, everybody who ended up being involved, La MaMa Theater for making the space for that kind of making. It’s not a typical story, I don’t think, to be like, “Yeah, I made this thing that was…” Anyway, so that was that.

Nabra Nelson: Yeah, and tell us about the other work since then, your theatre work and anything else you’ve been working on.

Bazeed: Oh, you mentioned Kilo Batra. You mentioned Kilo Batra actually. That’s another example sort of, again, I’m very luckily having worlds open up to me that I was not planning for, was not… Because the only reason I got connected to that project at all is Kamelya Omayma Youssef, who is my co-writer on that play. She is a poet, playwright, multidisciplinary writer as well, performer who is from Dearborn, Michigan, had a preexisting relationship with a host of people, which is the company who they made the play, they produced the play at the Arab American National Museum, and she brought me into that project. They were interested in making something, they had been making work about the life of Cleopatra already, and then found a play by Ahmed Shawqi, the Egyptian poet, that was the very first play to have ever been written entirely in Arabic verse. It was his sort of response to Shakespeare’s Cleopatra trying to kind of be like, “Well, your interpretation kind of sucks. Here’s her from our perspective.”

They were interested in writing a play that was just in response to that work, like the prompt was extremely broad from a host of people. It was Kamelya and I’s job to figure out what’s the story we’re going to tell here. We’re both coming at it from this place of “I am an immigrant to America,” so my positionality around Arab culture there. She is a first generation American born in a place where she got to speak Arabic growing up most of her life and be surrounded by a robust and extremely visible present Arab community, and that’s her positionality. We’re looking towards Shawqi trying to be like, “Yes, here’s this guy who’s going to rescue Cleopatra from Shakespeare’s shitty ass interpretation of her,” and then he writes a terrible misogynist honor killing of a play, honestly. That’s the history we’re contending with, and that’s the legacy we’re contending with.

The play ends up kind of being about that, of how do we keep encountering and re-encountering our histories when they’ve all been told with the same isms over and over and over and over and over again. One thing that was interesting when looking at that project actually, when we were researching it a little bit, was to see that Edwards Said’s Orientalism, like many, many, many of its tenets already sort of existed in how the Romans were imagining the Egyptians at the time, how the Egyptians were being written about in the Roman record.

It was interesting to be grappling with this play in the middle of the pandemic with everything that was going on. We started writing it a few days after the Black Lives Matter uprisings in June 2020 when we had to travel to Detroit in this… Bringing pee funnels because we couldn’t go into the bathroom for the trip, couldn’t go into the bathrooms because of COVID and nobody knowing anything going on, all of that, and sort of being so deeply rooted in a history that was so present, just feeling like we’re kind of in this timeless space where… Yeah, I don’t know, it was strange.

It was strange to be doing research on that project, kind of being in a very Arab city in America, it was my first time in Dearborn, and thinking through what the death of Cleopatra did to modernity and the Roman sort of renaissance that happens there, the fall of Egyptian culture after that, everything that was sort of happening that far back and seeing how much of it was still present with us. I feel like that’s something I keep encountering in my work is that things don’t change that much. We are answering a lot of the same questions in a lot of the same ways and thinking we’re making progress, but cycles.

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