In Arabia We’d All Be Kings
A play by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Department of Theatre & Drama
October 7-17, 2004 • Trueblood Theatre
Envision Times Square today. Bright lights, Broadway shows, MTV, tourists everywhere it is now a symbol of American Capitalism and one of the entertainment meccas of the world. In many respects, it’s hard to believe that only a decade ago, Times Square encompassed some of the most crime-ridden blocks in the entire country.
In a city of re-invention, Times Square is the queen of the face-lift. Christened Times Square in 1904 as a publicity stunt to commemorate a new building for The New York Times, the street was originally labeled Longacre Square and was the location of homes for many of the city’s immigrants. The first theaters were built by Oscar Hammerstein (grandfather of the Broadway lyricist) in 1895. As New York pushed its industrialization downtown, people and their leisure shifted further and further uptown. But when the families left vice moved in. The multitude of family brownstones erected by optimistic developers were transformed into saloons and brothels. Times Square, with its burlesque halls, vaudeville stages and dime houses, began to acquire a reputation for licentiousness. By the early 1970s, Times Square had become a concentration of live sex shops and porn stores; it had the highest crime rate in New York City. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is credited with finally turning the tide and ridding the Square of sex and crime in the mid-1990s.
It is in the seedy, end-of-the-line Times Square of the early 1990’s that Stephen Adly Guirgis sets his play, In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. Set in a bar that is going through a transition – it is closing due to Giuliani’s mandates to clean up Times Square – the play is really about a group of dysfunctional people whose entire lives revolve around the bar. The people we meet are representative of the types of people who lived in the area known as Hell’s Kitchen. These people have nothing else to do but sit in bars and watch people on the street. Without jobs, they must live by their wits, often perpetrating violence or receiving it. As dangerous as it seems, they turn to each other for comfort because others are suffering the same fates. Many would view the characters in the play with disbelief, but director John Neville-Andrews is quick to assure that these people are in fact real. Unaware that their last piece of home is about to be pulled out from under them, the bar patrons struggle on. Their sense of humor, their misguided hopes and dreams, and their lack of self-pity are badges that are tattooed on their souls. They will all, before the end, take the chance to face their complicated truths head on.
Stephen Adly Guirgis is an actor turned playwright, and is considered to be one of the most exciting new playwrights of his generation. He was working with the LAByrinth Theatre in New York City when the actors needed something to put on, so he just started writing. His work is visceral, ethereal and in your face.
All of Guirgis’ plays are written in what could be considered the vernacular of the lower social class in New York City. The pages of the play are littered with racial and ethnic slurs, swearing and slang. Director Neville-Andrews says that “the language in the play probably wouldn’t even cause raised eyebrows in New York City, but may cause audiences in non-urban areas a bit of discomfort.” However, he also feels that the language is an integral part of the play. “They are vulnerable in so many different ways. The language they use and the violence they threaten and act on sends a message that they shouldn’t be messed with. It brings you into their world.”
Director: John Neville-Andrews
Scenic Designer: Gary Decker
Costume Designer: Jennifer Nweke
Lighting Designer: Janine L. Woods
Vocal Coach: Annette Masson
Stage Manager: Joe Schlenke
Lenny: Kevin Kuczek
Skank: Matthew Smith
Sammy: Daniel Strauss
Miss Reyes/Woman: Kirsten Mara Benjamin
Sal/Holy Roller/Man 2: Adam H. Caplan
Chickie: Rachel Chapman
Demaris: Jen Freidel
Vic/Carroll/Man 4: De’Lon Grant
Rakim/Man 1: Justin Patrick Holmes
Daisy: Elizabeth Hoyt
Greer/Man 3: Edmund Alyn Jones
Charlie: J. Theo Klose
Jake: James Wolk
If the characters in this play were transported intact to Arabia, they’d each suffer one or more of the following punishments: stoning, mutilation, hanging and beheading, for the world they inhabit is at the bottom of the social underworld, the streetcorners, the crack joints, the dead end bars, cold park benches, prisons, places where they perpetually walk a razor thin boundary between random, meaningless life and random, meaningless death. Their world is devoid of any discernible moral order as we think we know it, as we think we have. In Arabia We’d All Be Kings is a series of rambling revelations, a kind of “reality theater,” shocking with raw, repulsive images and behavior that we can also witness in, among other places, Jerry Springer’s tv world. But author Guirgis is not content to merely let us glimpse this splattering of life, to show us how these people live; he wants us to see the world as they see it, as they experience it, but not through conventional psychological character development, plotted action and a dramatic arc, but, rather, through their daily struggles to exist, to survive in a larger world that they barely understand, to insist on some sense of personal dignity and worth however small, to dream of a better life for themselves, to nurture those naive dreams with drugs, alcohol and crippled love. Guirgis guides us through a living museum of helpless, wretched souls, but he doesn’t explain to us what we’re seeing; he merely draws our attention to the images and moves on. His racial, ethnic and gender perjoratives are plentiful and universally bestowed, for he lets the characters express themselves in the naked, harsh vernacular of their underworld. What little change that occurs in this theatrical spectacle (for it is not a “play” in the traditional sense) is change from forces external to the underworld. The characters merely respond to the changes which the forces randomly impose. Guirgis has given us a torturous portrait of postmodern hunter/gatherers in the urban wilderness of New York City. But no matter how brutally the game of “life” batters this assortment of characters, they have the will, the energy, the hope to keep playing the game.
— OyamO, Professor of Theatre, U-M