A theater production running at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, tells the story of the historic Egyptian uprising on January 25, 2011, in the style of a Western-style musical production, and does it quite well. So well that as an Egyptian who protested in Tahrir Square and hoped for change, I was reminded of how far we once had come and then failed.
Called We Live in Cairo, the play is a fictionalized narrative of a group of Egyptian youth who come together from different walks of life to participate in the events of January 25th. Equal parts political story-telling and musical score, We Live in Cairo is an accurate depiction of the youth-driven movement and the tumultuous events before General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi became president.
Written by Daniel Lazour and Patrick Lazour, two brothers of Lebanese descent who live in Boylston, Massachusetts, the play was first tested in a workshop during an artist residency at the American University in Cairo where the Lazours relied on the experiences and narratives of Egyptians to capture the events of the uprising. That workshop led to some substantial additions to the play.
The playwrights also had conversations with other Egyptian writers and artists, including Tarek Massoud, an Egyptian professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. It was workshopped at the National Music Theater Conference, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut, and the New York Theatre Workshop, and was awarded the Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater in 2016 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Cairo Comes to Cambridge
The novelty of We Live in Cairo is twofold: It succinctly and accurately explains the events that led to the organization of the January 25th protest, and the narrative rests on a motley crew of characters representative of actual activists and participants. All the roles are played by Egyptian or Middle Eastern professional actors with past experience in theater and music, helping to pull off the difficult feat of acting and singing on a level with Broadway or West End productions.
The characters include Karim, played by the British-Egyptian actor Sharif Afifi. Karim is a privileged graffiti artist who sprays statements of protest at night on walls while attending the American University in Cairo by day. Karim represents the vibrant graffiti movement that conveyed the activists’ demands, and the style of the young artists who developed careers in graffiti afterwards.
The character of Hany, a young Copt who eventually loses hope after the uprisings and moves to New York to pursue a law degree, is played by Abubakr Ali. Fadwa, a female activist who has been repeatedly jailed and keeps urging activism even after the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood, is played by Dana Saleh Omar. The character of Hassan, the son of a poor porter who joins the others at the behest of Karim, is played brilliantly by Gil Perez-Abraham who captures the confusion of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. These supporters benefited from the brotherhood’s grass-roots charity organizations and financial aid during the era of Hosni Mubarak, but their loyalty was tested during the coup against Mahmoud Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader.
Layla, a photographer, is played by Parisa Shahmir. She falls in love with Amir, a guitar-playing singer played by Jakeim Hart loosely based on Ramy Essam, a singer who wrote protest songs against the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and played them in Tahrir Square until brutally attacked and forced to leave Egypt. The actors Layan Elwazani and Waseem Alzer serve as ensemble cast members.
Romance and Politics
Two subplots help to underscore the tension and the emotional highs and lows of the events. One of those subplots is romantic—a love story between Layla, who is Muslim, and Amir, who is Christian. One of the play’s best songs is a duet they sing together.
The other subplot is political: Tensions run high between Karim and Hassan, who disagree about the Muslim Brotherhood coming into power, and are highest when Karim confronts Hassan about a shared emotional chemistry once displayed earlier in the play, but which Hassan vehemently denies. This is a story about an uprising, but it is also very much a story about the psychological toll it takes on its participants when events eventually shatter hope and expectation.
Supported by a musical group that includes a cello, bass and violin to support percussion, guitar and oud, the songs’ lyrics are an affecting combination, a beautiful blend of orchestral instruments with a heavy dose of oud. The overall sound is not contrived, but shows how novel is the Lazour brothers’ attempt to make a Western-style musical with an Arab narrative and Arabic music, and how well they’ve pulled it off.
The production also incorporates video of the original events to create an immersive experience.
The play’s shortcoming was the dance sequences, particularly the moment celebrating the removal of Mubarak when actors performed a dabka-style dance, which is a specifically Levantine and Palestinian form. Still, the inaccuracy won’t annoy American audiences. I also felt the use of the word “habibi” (an Arabic term of endearment) between characters was excessive.
I bumped into Hart after departing the theater while looking for my Uber. “Good job,” I yelled out. “It reminded me of every one of those days.”
“Did we get it right?”
We Live in Cairo is playing until June 23 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s widely expected to move on to another venue.