With comedies presented in Arabic and English about the challenges facing Arab Americans in the U.S., the Michigan-based Ajyal Theatrical Group bills itself as the first Arab-American theatre group in North America.
And since its founding in 1988 by Lebanese-born writer, producer, actor and director Najee Mondalek, the company has been busy producing about a dozen comedies that have been performed throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The company now comes to the Carpenter Performing Arts Center with its newest comedy called “Ghashee W Mashee — The Dumbass,” which is set for a one-night performance Saturday.
The show features the fictional character Im Hussein, the matriarch of an Arab-American family who is featured in several of the company’s productions.
Aziz Charabaty, the co-producer and director of the show, talked about the importance of the company and the new show in an email interview.
Some of the answers were edited for space.
Q: In presenting humorous plays, what social issues do you address?
A: Most of our shows poke fun at the everyday lives of Arab-Americans, who have recently become citizens and who are desperately trying to blend into the mainstream of American culture.
There are hundreds of newcomers who have faced some kind of problems with learning a new language and culture. Their mannerisms and slip-of-the-tongue carry humorous overtones.
Najee Mondalek’s works … which are critical perspectives of people and society, are the closest reflection of a genuine Arab-American immigrant life on stage.
His plays are more sociological than political with some comments on the political situation and more comments on the type of society that we live in.
The issues presented in AJYAL’s plays explores profound elements and deep levels of American society, such as our relationship with this land, the system, the people, and things that happen around us.
Although humorous, Najee’s plays are not kind of light, entertaining art form. His theatre form is demanding and painful, very thought-provoking and it makes rethink who you are.
Q: With the results of this presidential election in mind, what is the importance of an Arab-American theater company?
A: Political satire and comedy have always been one of the best tools to explore difficult topics.
Post 9/ 11 Najee Mondalek wrote “Me No Terrorist,” which dealt with the issue of secret evidence that the FBI used to detain Arab-Americans suspected of terrorist activities. Although AJYAL’s plays deal with serious issues, the goal is to make the audience laugh.
In “Me No Terrorist,” an elderly woman, “IM Hussein” played by Najee Mondalek … is visiting the U.S. and her broken English brings her trouble as she tries to tell FBI agents that she’s a “tourist.” But what they hear is “terrorist.”
While our country is divided and we have just elected a man who stokes that divisiveness, we don’t know what’s going to come next, or what the next four years have in store for all of us minorities. Our theatre will always speak the truths for those who hunger them. It will be a cultural space where our community examines itself in a mirror.
Q: Tell me about this show in particular — what is it about? What are the issues it covers?
A: Im Hussein is remodeling her house, and instead of getting city permits and hiring professionals to do the work, her know-it-all husband decides to hire his unlicensed and unqualified neighbor to do the job.
On top of that, her husband convinced her to not tell the authorities about her mom who died four years ago and to still collect welfare … To their surprise, the city inspector showed up at their doorstep to see the city permits, and the welfare representative paid them a visit to meet Im Hussein’s supposedly living mother.
Tucked in between the lines of the main story are other issues that affect the Arab American community including divorce for infertility, drug abuse, conflict between two generations and more.
Q: Besides laughs, what are you hoping people leave remembering or feeling after seeing this performance?
A: It is well-known that comedy can be a powerful tool in conveying a message, be it social, political or otherwise.
Najee Mondalek infuses his plays with comedy. Not only does humor help imprint his messages on the minds of the audience, but his comedic characters help him spread his thoughts to a wider crowd.
Mondalek’s “Im Hussein” uniquely possesses the uncanny ability to broach serious topics with apparent levity.
Her humorous situations will make the audience laugh at society’s challenges, no matter how complicated or grim, while at the same time causing them to rethink their notions of right and wrong, honesty, social justice and more.
The audience will leave in some kind of “pain” because people will face themselves at the end of the play and realize that there are some things that were previously avoided or overlooked. That realization is painful because it points at gaps, fractures, or inconsistencies in their self and in their social identity.