By Alison Minami
Tamadhur Al-Aqeel has been writing plays for over a decade. She started out in an acting program at Boston University, where the Dean of her theater department snickered that she’d only get stereotypical roles as a maid or a prostitute. This problem of representation followed her when she transferred to Cal Arts, and finally to Cal State Long Beach, where she settled on a major in Journalism. Like many artists of color, Tamadhur realized that writing for the stage was the best way to create better roles for women like herself. That was the nineties, and still, change has been slow to come.
Tamadhur has been a member of the Company of Angels Playwrights’ Group for nearly a decade and now serves as one of its co-leaders, volunteering to organize and schedule logistics. The group has evolved over time, having begun as an incubator for the theater’s 10-minute short play festival. Today it is an application-only, year-long play development program, with the aim of assisting writers to complete full-length pieces that culminate in professionally staged readings. She was also recently a member of the Vagrancy Theater’s professional playwrights’ group in 2020.
Tamadhur–“rhymes with bother” she says to help people with the pronunciation–was named after her father’s favorite Egyptian poet. She speaks fondly of her Kuwaiti-born father, a trained educator and a natural with young children, and recalls one of her early memories of him telling stories, using his hands as puppet-like figures around a tambourine, the proverbial campfire or theater in the round.
As an Arab-American female artist who is also a mom of two, Tamadhur has faced her fair share of challenges. In the early days, she co-wrote and independently produced a successful play that was a feminist take on Scheherazade, the narrator of the classic Middle Eastern tale One Thousand and One Nights. The piece incorporated shadow puppetry and began Tamadhur’s training and interest in the art form. Unfortunately, she was also in an intimate relationship with her co-writer and when that didn’t work out, he attempted to discredit her contribution. “Never sleep with your writing partner” she quips. The line is funny, but not the anecdote. It reflects a common problem of the patriarchy, desiring to punish women by usurping them of their creative power and due credit.
Post 9-11, like so many Americans of Middle Eastern descent, Tamadhur experienced increased scrutiny, which naturally led to increased paranoia. Her mail would arrive opened, and the airport security checks started and have never let up. To this day, whenever she travels with her family, they must factor in the time that it will take for security to put her through the humiliating rigmarole of patting her down, grabbing her crotch and breasts, and going through her things. Even at a young age, Tamadhur’s daughters would ask, “Why is it always you mom?” This kind of racism has naturally informed her writing.
In one of her most recent works “Traffic Report”, written expressly for the Zoom stage, a daughter and father, who is living under a “dictatorship cracking down on dissidents,” exchange Skype calls that are being surveilled. The audience is put in the seat of the spying, uncertain whether the father himself is a dissident and forcing them to consider the morality of surveillance as well as their own complicity.
Tamadhur wonders in a post-pandemic world “Who are audiences going to be?” and “How much can you ask of an audience?” These are great questions for all theaters who struggled, even before the pandemic, to fill their seats. She admits that while quarantine was terrible and Zoom plays were not ideal, the online format made it easier for her to produce her work and to participate in playwriting opportunities such as LAFPI’s Microreads.
Currently, she’s developing a puppet show “Drugs and a Magic Cow” which is a dark adaptation of the fairy tale of Old Mother Hubbard. She is also collaborating with Cold Tofu Improv Group, who will be taking the first two pages of a play she’s written expressly for their group, which they will perform and extend into a complete one-act of improvised theater. That show is virtual on November 18 https://www.youtube.com/c/ImproTheatre.