Quite a few years ago, I came across an actor I just couldn't get out of my mind. While his face had been familiar, and even displayed on billboards -- captured by master photographer Brigitte Lacombe -- on my first visit to Doha for their film festival, I had yet to watch him act in a film. Then, during the now defunct Abu Dhabi Film Festival, I watched Villa 69 by Ayten Amin, a film which starred this wonderful actor, Khaled Abol Naga as Hussein, a man slowly coming to terms with his terminal illness.
Not long after that I got to interview Kal Naga, as he is now best known, for the HuffPost. Naga is an activist, an outspoken supporter of the underdogs, a wonderful inspiration and remains one of my all-time favourite actors.
And now, US audiences can watch him in the virtual play Brilliant Mind by Denmo Ibrahim, an American writer and actress of Egyptian descent. The play is directed by Kate Bergstrom and streams until June 13 as part of the Marin Theatre Company's 2021 season. Rounding out the cast are Ramiz Monsef as Yusef and Torange Yeghiazarian as Hala.
The Company's Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis stated in the play's programme: "In late April 2020, it became clear that the pandemic was not going to be short-lived, and our theatre began to seriously consider cancelling the last two productions of the2019–2020 season. We decided that we needed to begin thinking about how to create work that would live between the live theatre stage and the virtual realm. One thing was clear, we, Marin Theatre Company, would continue to produce work that was new and of the moment, centered the voice of its originator, and responded to the concerns of our communities." Minadakis also explained his choice of the play by continuing, "I reached out to actor/creator/writer Denmo Ibrahim to ask if she had projects she could envision for our upcoming virtual season if live theatre proved to be impossible. Denmo met me fora drink and conversation in a restaurant parking lot and pitched me ideas. The one that immediately grabbed my interest was a project in which patrons would interact with short films about first-generation families and mental health issues of Middle Eastern immigrants and their children. I asked Denmo if there was a way to conceive of some part of this experience occurring with the character live on stage—the first film perhaps? Denmo said “Absolutely.” And we were off."
Ibrahim not only wrote the play and stars in it but during the pandemic co-founded a new kind of theatre company, the Storykrapht along with Marti Wigder Grimminck. The first play they "reimagined" taking the experience from live audiences to virtual ones is in fact Brilliant Mind, a very personal story for Ibrahim. In her own description for the play, she writes: "It’s inspired by true events and weaves in stories I gathered through a series of conversations with immigrants and first-gen kids from the Middle Eastern community." She continues that the play, "runs 75 mins and blends live performance, 3D animation, audience choice, text messaging, and film into one digital experience. It’s a two device experience (if you so wish it to be) so pour yourself a glass of bubbles, and dive into the moment after death. Best experienced holding someone’s hand."
In her programme notes Ibrahim elaborates on the story's inspiration: "When I began writing the story that would become Brilliant Mind, I knew three things. It was about a man named Yusef. This man struggles with mental health issues. He transforms through his father’s death. Then, a month later, my father—a person I had only met a few times—died, and my life changed. I put the play aside, flew to Los Angeles to meet my brother, and attended to a swirl of details regarding a stranger—his house, his family, his funeral. It was a rabbit hole of discoveries. When I came back home, I had a newfound perspective on this story I began writing. Could this be an incredibly personal project that also reflected a larger narrative about the first-generation experience in the Arab diaspora? Could I pick apart choice from chance?"
Casting Kal Naga in the role of Samir was of course a great stroke of genius. If anyone can make audiences laugh and cry with one single glance it's Naga. I know because even in a cameo role he's always managed to break me down.
I asked Naga for his experience in this brand new world of theatre, away from a traditional live audience. Generously, he replied: "It's been an incredible experience so far performing live daily alone on a stage with an empty theatre imagining the audience every night. First of all Samir El Musri is pretty much a sequel in many ways to Hussein in Villa 69, Secondly, this new play rehearsals and development with Denmo Ibrahim touched me emotionally on many levels: being Egyptian, living in the US, surviving state media campaigns against freedom Defenders etc..But mostly because of its existential nature examining life/death time/family dynamics of an estranged father."
If you think theatre isn't modern enough in this pandemic time, you need only read Ibrahim's words as a final reminder of how much the art is needed, to help us comprehend the world we find ourselves in: "In Brilliant Mind, Samir provides a comforting answer to this question: “It’s in the blood.” In Palestine, in America, in any land where injustice takes root, we the children are part of a first generation. We live with one foot in two worlds at all times, and where our parents failed, we strive to succeed. I believe their struggle ignites in us a new fight, a new passion, a vulnerability, a light that we will pass on to our children and their children. Brilliant Mind is a love letter to this rich lineage, and an acknowledgement of the legacy each of us leaves for generations to come."