“Back of the Throat,” written by Yussef El Guindi, produced by Jackie Williams, and directed by Nicholas Bashour, is now playing at Silver Spring Stage. It was first produced at Furious Theatre Company in Pasadena, California on June 24, 2006.
“Back of the Throat” takes place in the period shortly after 9/11. Khaled (Ramtin Vaziri)—back of the throat refers to the pronunciation of the first two letters of his name in Arabic—is a young writer who lives in his own apartment in a city somewhere in the United States. The play opens with a nervous Khaled and two men who we gather quickly are from the government, or at least who Khaled believes are from the government. The two men, Barlett (Drew Cannady) and Carl (Justin Bigelow), are questioning Khaled and going through his personal things. In a very Kafka-esque plot, Khaled is told he is being investigated for something elusive, but the Arab-American citizen, is never told exactly what that is. Khaled’s constitutional rights are continually violated. It is only in the second half of the play when he is told what the investigation is apparently about, but it appears that Barlett and Carl have already been his judge and jury.
“Back of the Throat” is a reminder that freedom and our own personal safety are so fragile.
There are many ambiguities to the plot. Does Khaled know Asfoor (Hamza Elnaggar), an Arab identified by the two G-men as a 9/11 terrorist? When he is accused, in a series of flashbacks, of being a conspirator with Asfoor, we do not know for sure if the two Arabic men really met at all or if their meetings are pure conjecture by the witnesses and the two interrogators. When one of the witnesses turns out to be an old girlfriend, we still are left with doubts concerning her interpretations of Khaled’s comings and goings. Even at the end, when Asfoor appears to Khaled in a dreamlike scene, we are left wondering.
The point of the play is that we judge people, especially minorities, by our own prejudices. It does not matter if that persona non grata is Moslem, African-American, Latin American, Asian or, as in the last few weeks, Russian. It also points out that none of us could be fairly judged if someone is looking to prove us guilty of unaccepted ideas or actions, especially if they came into our homes and looked through what we read and studied or examined our sexual proclivities. How would our friends’, families’, and neighbors’ comments about us be viewed and twisted? If you have ever been unfairly accused of anything, you can empathize with Khaled.
As the protagonist becomes more frightened, we become angrier at his treatment. We begin to believe, no matter what he has done, his treatment is unfair and even brutal. Even when there is doubt raised about his innocence, we don’t stop feeling sympathetic to him.
Vaziri does a magnificent job of reflecting the various stages of Khaled roller-coaster of emotions which range from being mildly nervous, worried, extremely apprehensive, brave, very fearful and finally, mentally and physically damaged. As his being is both physically and mentally degraded, one might imagine Khaled feels violated, like a rape victim, and Vaziri artfully conveys this to the audience.
Cannady and Bigelow as the two G-men (or are they?) also do a fine job expressing their personalities to the audience. Bartlett is a bit of a prude about sex and violence but sees immigrants as second-class citizens. Carl is more brutal, more smarmy, and more indiscriminately sadistic. The two actors manage to keep their characters for becoming caricatures which increases how frightening they appear.
Elnaggar also manages to keep the ambiguity of his character Asfoor throughout his appearances onstage. Is he a terrorist, does he frequent strip-clubs, or does he even know Khaled are questions that are purposely left unanswered.
The three female witnesses—Shelly the librarian (Lena Winter), Beth, Khaled’s ex-girlfriend (Briana Cortesiano), and Jean, the stripper (Caroline Adams)—are all nicely portrayed and leave the audience with memorable images. Adams’ stripper is very sexy and hard-nosed, provocative, crass and prejudiced. She is not the stripper with a heart of gold. Cortesiano is very believable as a scorned girlfriend and a frightened citizen. Beth reminds us that we were all frightened back then. Winter manages to make us questions why this librarian is so willing to implicate the two men.
Bashour’s direction stays true to the playwright’s intent. He expertly executes the brutality we see onstage with the help of Fight Choreographer, Bill Dunbar; Fight Captain, Winter; and the Intimacy Coordinator, Helen Aberger,
The lighting designed by Don Slater, especially in the flashbacks and the final scene, helps to create a feeling of the unreal and keep the ambiguity so essential to the playwright’s vision. Sound designer, Matthew Datcher, also helps create the mood with background music.
Jeffery Asjes Set Design was visually interesting. I really appreciate how the closet is used in the flashbacks.There is a problem with the placement of the desk on SSS’s unusual stage. There are seats that were blocked off because of issues with the sight lines due to that desk where a great deal of action takes place.
“Back of the Throat” will bring gasps and even a few tears as we watch how our government will allow even our own citizens to be persecuted due to fear. There are a few laughs, but this is an intense drama. “Back of the Throat” is a reminder that freedom and our own personal safety are so fragile.
Running time: One hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: This play addresses racism, racial profiling, and terrorism and includes simulated physical violence and sexual intimacy.
“Back of the Throat” runs through April 2, 2022 on weekends at Silver Spring Stage, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland 20901. For more information and tickets, go to this link.
Safety protocols: Silver Spring Stage requires that patrons and volunteers, including artists and staff, present a photo ID and show proof of vaccination—a physical or digital copy of a vaccination card—at the time of entering the theater. They are also continuing to require masks for all audience members.