Ali and Ali 7: Hey Brother (Or Sister) Can You Spare Some Hope and Change? is a follow-up to Ali and Ali and the aXes of Evil. Can you tell me about the characters and original story?
Marcus Youssef (MY): The characters were two Arab/Persian stereotypes Cam and I played improv games with in our early 20s, touring BC with Green Thumb. In the wake of 9/11 the CBC asked if we wanted to create something in response for the radio. At the time the only image of Arab/Muslims available you saw anywhere was either terrorist or victim of US racial profiling / paranoia. Those are, for me, equally uninteresting (and deeply interrelated) possibilities. So I suggested we use the Alis — because they’re not real; because they say the wrong thing; because they are about the West’s image of the Middle East, not the Middle East itself.
Camyar Chai (CC): One of my first experiences on stage was performing in the musical Oklahoma! in high school in North Vancouver. After a hot audition, I dreamt all weekend of being cast as ‘Curly.’ Why not? I was cute and had curly hair. I was shocked when my name appeared in front of the character, ‘Ali Hakim.’ It was then, at seventeen, when I first realized that my fellow Canadians didn’t see me as a blond and blue eyed Oklahoman, but rather, a creepy Persian peddler who enjoys de-flowering virginal white women. To my surprise, it was the best part in the play and I’ve rarely had bigger laughs. The idea behind our play’s Ali Hakim is to take the negative stereotypes of the character from Oklahoma! and appropriate them for our own gains, without losing the clown and the cultural tropes but adding dignity and complexity.
Did you plan to write a follow-up to The aXes of Evil?
MY: There was no plan at all, until Guillermo and I were in Toronto watching a hearing in federal court against security certificate detainee Mahmoud Jaballah. It was crazy. The most extraordinary thing to watch testimony in which the prosecution is not obligated to talk about its evidence, and instead relies entirely on hearsay and inference, while casting aspersions at a guy who’s been held in solitary confinement for almost a decade WITH NO CHARGES. In CANADA. Halfway through the first day of testimony and I said to Guillermo, this process is so absurd the only way I can imagine tackling it is with a characters for whom absurdity is central, as an aesthetic and as a critical tactic.
CC: The first one wouldn’t go away. Then suddenly the Obama phenomenon happened. We had a theme in the first play: ‘same but different.’ At that time we were referring to the fact that, if you look at their actions it’s hard to see much difference between Bush and Bin Laden (amongst other similar examples). Now, the theme still applies, only the comparison is between Bush and Obama as well. Everyone said everything has changed. Has it really? Another interest I had was the response to the first show in Seattle. I had to sit out because of an appendectomy and I gleefully watched Guillermo [Verdecchia, director] play my part. There was an edge to the satire, a level of self-consciousness and complicity, in the American audience that didn’t always happen with Canadian audiences. I think the subject of the Canadian Security Detainees gives us that edge.
If this is a sequel, why is it numbered “7”?
MY: They [Ali Ababwa and Ali Hakim] thought that calling it “7” made it sound more successful. Maybe it’ll excuse it if it’s bad. Nobody expected Rocky 6 to be any good. Or Saw 12.
CC: It was Marcus’ dumb idea. Or Guillermo’s? Anyway, they both think it’s funny so I humour them.
Ali & Ali 7 is on at The Cultch from Apr 13–24 @ 8pm. Matinees: Apr 17 & 24 @ 2pm. No performance Apr 18 & 19. For tickets, order online at http://tickets.thecultch.com/ or call the Box Office at 604-251-1363.