5 Questions with Sulayman Al Bassam

The internationally acclaimed Anglo-Kuwaiti writer/director returns to the Kennedy Center with Petrol Station March 24–26

Photo by Jack Llewllyn-Karski

What was the impetus for the idea and how did evolve into the work audiences will experience at the Kennedy Center?

I began writing Petrol Station when the US led armed invasion of Iraq began to take shape in Kuwait back in 2003. This reminded me of the burning oilfields set alight 12 years earlier by the withdrawing Iraqi army. I’m interested in the effects cyclical violence has on human experience. When I was Artist in Residence at NYU’s Gallatin School in 2015, I began to explore the appropriation of the American voice to play a story ostensibly about the Arab World. I found this experiment in cross cultural layering to be rich in meaning. This is what led me to develop this for the current production that will show at the Kennedy Center.

Photo by Jack Llewllyn-Karski

In March and April, the Kennedy Center is spotlighting theater directors from around the globe. Who are some of your theatrical inspirations? Can traces of their influence be seen in this work?

In the writing you will hear echoes of Shakespeare, but also more contemporary voices like the French Bernard Marie Koltès and the American playwright Sam Shephard. In the stage language I’ve been lucky to collaborate with a brilliant scenographer, Eric Soyer from Paris who brings a unique visual language and poetry to the piece. In the Music, Sam Shalabi from Montreal has composed a riveting cinematic score and the costumes are by the fabulous NY based Carlos Soto.

For audiences that connect with Petrol Station, how would you recommend they continue to engage with the themes examined in this work?

The themes of the play and its tropes can be explored further in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Troilus and Cressida. For further reading about the migrant Arab experience, I recommend Ghassan Kanafani’s wonderful short story “Men Under the Sun”. For those interested in the mythical journey of the GIRL character, I suggest reading the wonderful collections of Sumerian erotic and divine poetry, edited by Samuel Nah Kramer. To explore the world of war darkened skies and burning horizons, you should see Werner Herzong’s “Lessons in Darkness”. Further, you can enjoy the text of Petrol Station which is being published by Oberon Modern Plays and is available for purchase. It contains a fabulous introduction by the eminent Shakespeare scholar, Professor Susanne Wofford.

Can you tell us a bit about the SABAB Theatre company?

SABAB was established in 2004 as the Arabic arm of my London based company, Zaoum Theatre. For many years I collaborated with a pan-Arab group of performers and an international creative team to create the Arab Shakesepaere Trilogy. One of these pieces, Richard III, an Arab Tragedy was shown at the Kennedy Center in 2009.

What’s next for you? Are you developing any new projects at the moment?

Petrol Station is a border play and is the first in a trilogy of these plays that I plan to write over the coming years. I’m also working on an ancient Sumerian lamentation, UR, that I hope to premiere in Germany in 2018.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.