The East is no more mysterious than West," Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim once said. "We all face very much the same problems and react to them in very similar ways."
His point was well demonstrated this year at the Freud Playhouse of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), as sophisticated West-Coast audiences laughed exuberantly at the humor of one of al-Hakim's own works, a three-act satirical comedy called Fate of a Cockroach.
Renowned as one of the foremost Egyptian and Arabic writers of this century, al-Hakim is credited with developing an Egyptian theatrical identity through the content, regional color and language of his drama.
Cockroach was al-Hakim's 79th play; he died in 1987 at the age of 89. He first gained international recognition in 1933 for a play entitled The Cave Dwellers, and many critics feel Fate of a Cockroach, written in 1966 and translated into English by Denys Johnson-Davies, is equally good.
The performance of Fate of a Cockroach, one of eight productions by UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television in the 1992-93 season, was directed by Professor Beverly J. Robinson, who worked for more than a decade to bring the play to the American stage. In 1983, while on leave from UCLA, Robinson visited al-Hakim in Cairo, meeting with him at least three or four times a week over two months.
"I'll never forget the sparkle in his eyes whenever we discussed producing Fate of a Cockroach in the United States," she recalled. "Tawfiq afforded me the opportunity to talk about theater in Cairo; he'd listen to me and then he'd tell me how his plays related to a larger world. He was talking multi-culturalism before the phrase was coined."
"Most Americans are naive about Arab writers and about the fact that some of the finest pieces of world literature come from the Middle East," Robinson said. The ideal way to expose Americans to the Arab world, and to another level of consciousness, she decided, was to stage Fate of a Cockroach.
The UCLA production marked the first time that the play had been staged in its entirety, and its costumes and sets were worthy of any Broadway show. More than two months were invested in sewing costumes designed by student Roz Moore. Far and away the most striking were the amber-and cinnamon-hued cockroach ensembles, combining sequins, feathers, shells and mirrors with chiffon, velvet and quilted fabrics. Masks, face-paint and long red antennae enhanced the cockroach look, perfected by the actors' jerky head and leg movements.
Moore also designed ingenious ant costumes, in black and dappled gray, complete with antennaed heads and insect tails. The ants brought a "Soul Train" flavor to the production as they stamped in rhythmic unison up a ladder and across the stage. Another unique Robinson touch was the use of traditional shadow puppets in the shape of ants that moved across a giant screen.
Al-Hakim's script called for only one "subject cockroach," who is ruled by others. When four woman students applied for the single role, Robinson gave them al-Hakim's lines and challenged them to come up with a solution.
The aspiring actresses innovated one of the hits of the show. Their costumes were simpler than those of the courtly cockroaches, but their headdresses had a distinctly pharaonic flair, and the four danced to a doo-wop beat, singing:
The set for the play's first act consisted of a two- by four-meter (roughly 7- by 13-foot) bar of Egyptian soap, complete with an Arabic brand name and an impression of the Sphinx molded in, along with the massive leg of an antique bathtub and the ends of open pipes from which the cockroaches crawled onstage.
The tall, self-appointed cockroach leader, played by Cress Williams, spoke in bass tones as he thumped his jeweled scepter and fretted over the danger posed by his age-old enemies, the ants. His consort, the cowardly minister, the priest and the savant all bemoan the loss of the minister's son, who has been murdered and carried off by the ants. One character suggests that if 20 cockroaches were to assemble in a column, they could destroy an entire battalion of ants.
"How many generations would it take before we cockroaches could be trained to walk in columns?" sighs the ruler. Furthermore, he notes, ants have ministers of war to organize them.
"Ants are concerned only with the storage of food," another cockroach comments in justification. "We are curious creatures. We test things with our whiskers."
Acts II and III focus on the failure of humans not only to understand the language of insects, but even to communicate with one another. Al-Hakim also strikes a universal chord in his treatment of the battle between the sexes - one that can be understood by Cairene or Angeleno audiences alike.
Once again designer Moore excelled, this time with color-coordinated costumes for actors playing human parts: apricot-hued jallabiyyahs and persimmon and gold caftans.
The star of Acts II and III is Jezabel Montero, cast as the domineering housewife, Samia. The fun begins when she catches sight of the cockroach leader trapped in her bathtub. Samia is certain that her hen-pecked husband, Adil, has finally lost his wits when he becomes preoccupied with the determination of the little insect, who repeatedly climbs up the side of the tub in an attempt to escape, only to fall back each time.
American audiences quickly catch the humor of the situation as Adil's boss phones, and the wife tries to cover up for her husband's preoccupation with the indomitable cockroach. The ultimate fate of the cockroach rates a collective gasp, then laughter, as the audience expresses its concern for the insect's destiny.
Fate of a Cockroach ran for 10 performances over two weekends at UCLA. One special matinee performance was given for 500 inner-city school children, who ooohed and ahhhed in admiration of the insect costumes and spent nearly 30 minutes talking to the actors after the performance. Encore performances in Los Angeles or other US cities would depend upon funding, Robinson noted.
Pat McDonnell Twair worked as a journalist for six years in Syria. Based now in Los Angeles, she is a free-lance writer who specializes in Arab-American topics.