Omar Hantash’s Roof, Carmen Lobue’s Will You…Hold My Hair Back?, and Sophie Sagan-Gutherz’s Marked Green at Birth Marked Female at Birth take place thousands of miles apart—in ISIS territory, in suburban Massachusetts, and in San Francisco—and yet each of their stories deftly weave a cultural or religious thread with the queer narratives and characters of their plays to present stories unlike those that have come before.
In Roof, gay college student Adnan is taken captive by an Islamic terrorist tasked with throwing him off the roof because of his homosexuality. What he doesn’t know? The masked assailant is his ex-boyfriend. Will You…Hold My Hair Back? follows the latest social media-celebrity gay couple, Grace and Piper, as they plan their wedding and navigate their opposite families: working class Italian-American and affluent African-American. Marked Green at Birth Marked Female at Birth takes place at a Jewish Day School where five freshman girls and non-binary Star grapple with sexuality, gender, eating disorders, and what it means to live in a female body.
Yet, Hantash, Lobue, and Sagan-Gutherz each present LGBTQIA+ stories unlike those we’ve seen before, examining queer experiences through specific cultural and religious lenses. The trio offer fresh takes on queer stories as they develop their works as part of the 2020 Pride Plays festival. While each of these new plays layers the queer experience with a specific cultural-religious perspective, these stories are also about survival.
What is it like to be gay in an Islamic country, where your being is illegal? What about being non-binary in the Jewish world? How do these Black and Italian families actually feel about their daughters’ sexuality? Here, Hantash, Lobue, and Sagan-Gutherz explore just that.
Omar, your play captures an extreme, life-and-death moment. Where did the idea come from?
Omar Hantash: You know how, when you’re driving and you just daydream and then you reach your destination and you’re like, ‘Wait, how the f*ck did I get here alive? I wasn’t paying attention.’ When I was visiting the Middle East back when ISIS was still a thing, I’d daydream and drive and then once I’d reach my destination, I would panic. But I wouldn’t panic and think, “What if I’d gotten into a car crash?” I’d think, “What if I accidentally ended up in ISIS territory?” Then I’d obsess over how to get myself out of this situation. I can’t fight, I’m not strong physically. All I have is my mouth going for me. [As for the characters,] I just felt it was important to bring in someone who’s accepted his sexuality, but is about to have that [assurance] ripped out right from under him. And it was important to also showcase someone who’s already had it ripped out from under him and how you grapple with someone who’s so open and comfortable with themselves when you’re not.
What does queerness look like within the culture you explore in your play?
Hantash: LGBTQ culture in the Middle East is non-existent, you know. LGBTQ people exist in big numbers, but the culture doesn’t exist. What exists is fear and hiding and pretending.
Because homosexuality is illegal in a lot of Islamic countries, right?
Hantash: Yeah, it is. … As long as you govern through religion, LGBTQ people will never have rights. And so I kind of wanted to incorporate all of those topics into my play—what it means to be LGBTQ and in the Middle East and how that ties in with religion specifically.
Carmen, in the context of your play, Grace and Piper are an interracial couple planning their wedding, which is the ultimate collision of families. How, if at all, does race and culture play into the dynamics of your play?
Carmen Lobue: It plays in so much simply for the fact that I wrote this the day after the Pulse nightclub shooting happened, so that I could really fall back in love with love, with the possibility of loving without limits. These characters, one family is Italian and the other is African-American, and we have this huge class divide. On top of that, we’re dealing with how the media in 2015 respond to the couple. Even now, if there is a queer couple that goes viral, we follow them until the end of all time; we will obsess over them. I feel like the thing that these characters are able to do is decide who they want to be spiritually, who they want to be culturally and how they want to live their lives as a couple going forward. So I think it’s a constant conversation and a constant fight about, ‘Why do my parents get to decide who carries my child? That’s actually none of your business.’ Those are the kinds of conversations that are happening in the play.
Sophie, your play takes place in a Jewish day school. How do you use that setting and that Jewish cultural lens?
Sophie Sagan-Gutherz: I am Jewish. I didn’t go to private school or grow up in a Jewish day school, but I definitely felt the pressures of this idealized version of the Jewish boyfriend. There’s just this implicit pressure within Judaism. And I grew up in a super reform community, but even so. I always write from who I am. I feel like every character has a bit of me in it and Star, definitely because I’m non-binary.
Why were you motivated to incorporate these specific cultures and religious lenses and layer them on to the queer stories of these characters?
Lobue: I chose an Italian family because, of course there are so many different types of white people, but some people are absolutely like off-the-boat Italian. They will say it with pride and tell you where their family’s from—the most proud immigrants. That pride is just so paramount, and I also wanted to show an affluent, proud Black family, and see what these dynamics look in the cultural conversation and the political conversation we’re having right now. We’re all talking about identity. We’re all talking about where we stand in this country right now and how we came to be here. I do think there is some underlying conversation happening between these characters as it relates to tradition and it relates to their place in class, in this, and in privilege in this world right now.
Sagan-Gutherz: Lately, I’ve been obsessed with groups of women. And I was trying to think about unifying factors, but I think setting it in this Jewish day school, all these people have this common theme that connects them all, even though they’re all so wildly different. My Jewish temple was like hippy dippy, a lot lesbians. I’m so grateful for that, but even still I felt pressured to be hetero. I think it’s just an interesting conundrum how we want these religions and how we want these cultural spaces to be progressive, but simultaneously there’s years of tradition, which, you know, is not always bad, but sometimes traditions need to be broken.
Hantash: I chose the roof specifically because it’s the place where ISIS was throwing gay people. I think magical things happen on roofs—kisses and parties and sometimes sex—and terrible things happen on roofs— suicide and [this practice of] pushing gay people off of them. It’s where you go and contemplate your entire life.
How do you deal with pushback on straying from tradition?
Lobue: If there is any pushback from family members in my life... I live my life according to my own terms. I think that’s something that a lot of queer people can relate to. We essentially create our own families. You go away from whatever this discomfort is and you find your people. That in itself is a means of survival.
Survival is a theme that threads through each of your plays. Sophie, Marked Green at Birth… addresses how people assigned female at birth relate to their physical bodies. Do you think the relationship with the female body is a mechanism of survival in a male world?
Sagan-Gutherz: This time period, around eighth grade, is when I think you begin to realize that your body is an object and you start to internalize a lot of patriarchy. When I was in eighth grade, and as seen in the play, it’s [about] how I communicated with boys and the things they said to me. Within this group called “Friends of Female Focus” that I created [within the work], I think there is the sense of survival. When I think of survival, I think of celebration. I tried to really have this kind of celebration amongst these universal moments and “all these things happen to us, but we’re going to keep going” mentality. The discovery of these AIM conversations [from that age], they triggered a lot of that. The message I want to send through the play is about survival and how even if you are pushed to be an object in society, there are ways to reclaim your body as subject.
As each of your plays continue to develop through Pride Plays and beyond, you each grapple with complex issues and themes from your own lives through your work. How did you each came to playwriting?
Hantash: Growing up in the Middle East—and I don’t want to trash the Middle East, it’s home—theatre was a place of escapism. Started off acting, and we were allowed to write our own skits and plays. There was just something very magical about it. There were a few things we didn’t have access to in the Middle East, and the only way I’d have access to those things was through film and television. I began writing and it was magical; I could write a script for TV or film, but no one’s going to act it out in real time like with the theatre.
Sagan-Gutherz: I am primarily an actor, but I’ve always written poems. And when I discovered these AIM convos, I was like, “I need to share these somehow.” I’ve always written about personal things. I found myself with some artistic downtime when I was at Williamstown [Theatre Festival] this past summer and thought, “I guess I should like take out this sh*tty play I wrote once… Oh, I guess I’m a playwright.”
Lobue: I started writing when I was really little, but I think why I continue playwriting is because I don’t see myself in American theatre. I am very black. I’m very Filipina. I would love to see more. I don’t always want to see myself in trauma. I want to see myself in joy. I want to see myself celebrated. So that is why I will continue.