- Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present by Michael Malek Najjar
In the preface to his wide-ranging study of Arab American drama, film, and performance, Michael Malek Najjar reflects on the curious fact that during his own studies from his BA to his PhD, he was never assigned “a novel, play, or book of poetry by an Arab American” (1). At a time when scholarship in identity studies became prominent in literature departments, the status of Arabs in the United States went largely unexamined. While the last 30 years have seen the creation of US institutions focused on defending the rights of Arab Americans and on fostering their participation in public life—such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (established in 1980) and the Arab American Institute (established in 1985)—there has been, until recently, little academic study on what it means to be Arab American nor attention to how that subject has been explored by artists and writers who identify as such. Arab American Drama, Film and Performance: A Critical Study, 1908 to the Present is one of a number of studies filling this void—alongside valuable contributions such as Steven Salaita’s Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide (2011) and Waïl S. Hassan’s Immigrant Narratives: Orientalism and Cultural Translation in Arab American and Arab British Literature (2011). However, as these two examples indicate, theatre and film have been neglected in comparison to fiction and poetry. All the more need, then, for Najjar’s study. [End Page 167]
The book stretches from the start of the 20th century to brief discussions of works from the past five years. It covers a range of media—theatre, solo performance, stand-up, and film—and devotes separate chapters to post-9/11 dramas and to Palestinian American playwrights. Arab American Drama, Film and Performance presents a picture of energetic artistic activity representing a wide range of sensibilities in various performance forms. Despite its wide net, the book repeatedly returns to the theatre, which is clearly the author’s area of expertise. The book begins with a chapter devoted to the historical and theoretical context of the rise of Arab American political consciousness in the second half of the 20th century. The chapter covers multiple topics, such as surveillance of Arab Americans beginning under Richard Nixon and increasing after 9/11, negative stereotyping, and the impact of the 1967 war.
The book grows more focused in the second chapter, analyzing three early-20th-century plays by major Lebanese American authors: Ameen Rihani’s Wajdah (1908), Kahlil Gibran’s The Chameleons (1916), and Mikhail Naimy’s Parents and Children (1916). These works—along with other plays by these authors—demonstrate that from the very beginnings of Arab American literature drama was a valued form. Having made the case for the long-standing art of Arab American theatre, Najjar shifts gears and takes up popular entertainment in a chapter examining stand-up comedy and comic theatre. The chapter presents the seeming contradiction of pursuing a mass audience through the depiction of a minority identity. This was masterfully achieved, Najjar demonstrates, in the 1944 stand-up routine that propelled Danny Thomas to national prominence: “Ode to a Wailing Syrian.” Najjar moves on to a 1990 revival of S.K. Hershewe’s An Oasis in Manhattan, produced by and starring Vic Tayback (who knew that the character Mel from the TV sitcom Alice was Syrian American?); to the huge popularity with North American Arabic speaking audiences of Najee Mondalek’s crossed-dressed performances as a Lebanese matriarch (in the tradition of Tyler Perry’s Medea); and finally to post-9/11 Arab American stand-up.
Chapters 4 and 5 focus entirely on the theatre, and together the eight plays discussed can be said to outline the contemporary Arab American psychology. A chapter on post-9/11 theatre examines four plays depicting anti-Arab racism and the security measures promulgated during the War on...