Theater-maker Sulayman Al-Bassam was born in Kuwait to a Kuwaiti father and an English mother. He spent his first 12 years there before being sent to boarding school in England, after which he attended the University of Edinburgh and later started a theater company in London. A year after the 9/11 attacks, in the year of his 30th birthday, he moved back to Kuwait.
Now he splits his time between there and London, when not touring internationally or, say, serving as an artist-in-residence at New York University.
So: Where, if anywhere, does he feel at home?
“A depopulated island called Failaka, which is 16 nautical miles off the coast of Kuwait. I found myself there a few years ago with my visas held up in some embassy and nowhere to go,” Al-Bassam says, on a Skype call from London.
That tiny island, largely abandoned after Iraq invaded it in 1990, offers little ground to roam. But Al-Bassam’s outsider status, occupying space between cultures and countries, seems essential to his aesthetic.
It’s the view from which he bridges cultural territory. This is evidenced by his “In the Eruptive Mode,” which makes its United States premiere in an ArtsEmerson production at the Paramount Center Jan. 24-28 and features six monologues, alternating between English and Arabic. Or his Arab Shakespeare trilogy, which used “Hamlet,” “Richard III,” and “Twelfth Night” as springboards for stories about contemporary life in Arab nations. (ArtsEmerson presented the third entry in that trilogy, “The Speaker’s Progress,” in 2011.)
“It’s my work that marks me as an outsider, I think. That’s a good thing. Well, in the sense that the work needs to remain autonomous and brave and difficult to co-opt,” he says.
“In The Eruptive Mode” is performed by Syrian actor Hala Omran, actor Catherine Gowl, and pianist Brittany Anjou, the latter two Americans based in New York. Omran and Gowl alternate between Arabic- and English-language monologues written in the voices of women in various countries affected by the Arab Spring, the series of civil protests and armed conflicts that began in Tunisia in late 2010 and spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
In the show’s subtitle, Al-Bassam calls this period a hijacked spring.
“It was very painful for many millions as we saw the breakup of Syria, the continuing war in Yemen, the return to the status quo in Egypt,” Al-Bassam says. “It kind of means that this spring was in some sense diverted from its initial intent somehow, or its initial possibilities.”
The women in “In the Eruptive Mode” include a Western war journalist (inspired by American war correspondent Marie Colvin) in her final moments of life, an American who joins the Israeli army and falls in love with a Palestinian man, a member of the Yazidi Kurdish minority who have been subject to a genocide perpetrated by ISIS, and a Christian woman holed up as a sniper.
An earlier version of the play included a mix of male and female voices, but Al-Bassam decided that a focus on women would underline his intent to highlight the voices of the disenfranchised.
“I had spent a long time looking at questions of power and sovereignty and identity in a kind of contemporary Arab slash Western world,” he says. The women in the new piece “have no pretensions to status through either birth or the structures of male power.”
Though each of these monologues is set in a specific time and place, those details are not always spelled out for the audience. Gowl, who performs the English-language portions, says this fact underlines the continuing relevance of these stories, rather than limiting them to a specific historical context. “The situation and condition of these women remains relevant,” she says. “These are very specific women in very specific moments. They are not meant to be catch-alls for their nation, their occupation, their age group, or their background.”
In all his work, Al-Bassam has sought to create meaty pieces that don’t require an extensive amount of complicated stagecraft to pull off, in part as an acknowledgment of the adverse conditions that theater-makers in a war-torn region encounter. But he resists broadly categorizing the contemporary Arab world as a particularly hard place to make theater.
“The assumptions of the US towards what might be easy or possible or allowed inside a US environment as opposed to an Arab-Islamic environment are no longer as clear-cut as they were. I think that people who make theater almost anywhere outside the super-subsidies of countries like Germany or France have huge logistical challenges to overcome in the theater,” he says.
“I learned to understand from my collaborators of the difficulty and precariousness of making work as talented professional actors inside a US cultural economy that is tough.”
But perhaps that’s the sort of landscape most in need of a creative eruption.
In the Eruptive Mode
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At the Paramount Center Robert J. Orchard Stage, Boston, Jan. 24-28. Tickets $20-$80, 617-824-8400, www.ArtsEmerson.org
Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.