Omer Abbas Salem is building his own canon | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Omer Abbas Salem is building his own canon

With Mosque4Mosque and other plays, the MENA playwright and actor creates space for Muslim and Arab artists.

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Omer Abbas Salem had over 5,000 new plays from the last 20 years at his fingertips, and zero reflected even a semblance of living as a gay Arab teen or young adult. 

While a 2017/18 apprentice at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Salem was tasked with writing and performing a ten-minute solo show for the program’s final showcase. Actors were encouraged to center identity, to demonstrate their personality and breadth of self rather than that of their characters. But the library of past work from ATL proved a dismal beginning point.

Salem grew up in Damascus, Syria, in what he describes as a “microcosm of America placed in this really antediluvian environment because Syria in the 90s is absolutely not what [. . .] anywhere was like in the 90s. It was probably [more like] the 70s.” Theater was the most thrilling activity Salem was a part of as a child, even nabbing a star role in James and the Giant Peach. These moments cemented a love of storytelling, even if his family deterred him from formally pursuing the arts at university. Salem’s family moved to Chicago’s southwest suburbs and he later attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Salem shares what is a common sentiment amongst immigrant parents. “I have Brown parents and they initially told me that I couldn’t major in theater and I took that to heart.” He majored in English and journalism, figuring that was the closest he could get to theater. “I always really loved writing, and I didn’t think that there were other jobs for writers, other than a journalist.” Salem now sees this diversity in writing style and structure as strengths to his playwriting. After finishing school, he moved back to Chicago, entering the theater scene primarily as an actor, making his way through The House Theatre (Pinocchio), Steep Theatre (Linda), and appearances with several other companies, including Silk Road Rising and Eclipse.

It wasn’t until his Actors Theatre apprenticeship that Salem found his way back to the page. It was his first opportunity to write something he knew would be produced and he was instructed to turn to their play archive for inspiration. In searching for plays featuring American Arab identity, Salem remembers, “I couldn’t find a single play that didn’t involve an accent or didn’t involve terrorism or didn’t involve some kind of abuse.” As MENA artists, we are familiar with these gaps and depictions, but only recently has data cemented how representation itself is not the end of the conversation. 

A 2018 study by the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition details that 78 percent of MENA characters depicted in media are “trained terrorists/agents/soldiers or tyrants.” For Salem as an Arab actor, his anecdotal experience is only further affirmed when considering that, according to the study, “when MENA actors portray MENA characters, 67% appear on crime or geopolitical dramas.” Salem’s ten-minute show fiercely defied this legacy of harm, setting new expectations with a piece that then became the roots of a queer Arab play cultivated and celebrated in community.

Mosque4Mosque was developed through Jackalope Theatre’s Playwrights Lab, an intimate eight-week program helmed by Calamity West (playwright of gripping works like In the Canyon and Hinter): “The idea of being able to learn how to write a play from her was too intriguing not to try.” So Salem applied and was accepted into the program, not realizing what a much smaller cohort it was. “I got to speak a lot more. I didn’t think [my work] would get as much active attention as it did.” He thrived in a room full of other writers and found their work and feedback inspiring. 

Following the workshop, Salem had a full draft and shared it with some friends, one of them being multidisciplinary artist and community organizer Arti Ishak. What transpired was a whirlwind of MENA community support as hype around the play meant changing venues three times to serve capacity for the staged workshop reading. It was heartening to witness, and I remember squeezing through a packed house—how much joy radiated in the possibility of a funny, smart play that centers queerness and Muslim identity. It kicked off a series of events that were planned to uplift the MENA theater community and challenge destructive caricatures. (The parody music video ”Shukran Bas” does much to counter such narratives and features Salem, with his mildly theater-community-famous dog, Moudi, also under the direction of Ishak.) Salem describes working with Ishak not only as an artful process but “like an emotional soothing.” In real time, both artists are stepping into newer artistic roles, enabling growth in each other. 

“Our initial [Mosque4Mosque] workshop was one of [Ishak’s] first directing projects. While I know that I’m growing as an artist, it’s so cool to literally look to my side and see somebody else growing as well. We’re providing the space for each other to do this.”

Since this community-produced reading, Salem has risen as an emerging playwright, holding a commission with Jackalope Theater’s 20/21 New Frontier Series for his play Being Julia Roberts, then developing his play The Secretaries through the Goodman Theatre and having it land as a semi-finalist in Definition Theatre’s 20/21 Amplify Commission

Now Salem and Ishak are making space at Steppenwolf Theatre Company with Mosque4Mosque as a part of the SCOUT New Play Development Initiative. This collaboration presents a string of historic firsts, making one wonder about the company’s capacity to truly show up for artists who’ve never had a seat at their table. 

Salem shares, “They have made it very clear to us they are ill-equipped to predict what our needs may be because they’ve never worked with a group of Arab actors and they don’t have any Arab actors in their ensemble. They’ve never worked on a play like this before.” (Steppenwolf did host the Muslim Writers Collective, of which Ishak and Salem are members, as part of their LookOut performance series in August of 2019.)

Chicago theater is mythologized for its scrappiness, a supposed low barrier to entry to just make with what you’ve got amongst your closest friends. In taking this work into a prominent institution, one would hope the resources (beyond money and space) to support the work are already a part of the infrastructure. Mosque4Mosque complicates what is considered a “normal” Muslim American family, as the play follows Ibrahim, a queer millennial, his cheerleading high schooler sister, and an endlessly loving mother. 

In writing the play, Salem also had an eye towards expanding opportunities for a Muslim and MENA creative team, endeavoring to include as many artistic fields as he could think of, from projections to specific costuming and beyond. Although this reading through SCOUT will be virtual, negating some of these elements, Salem still celebrates the amount of Muslim and Arab artists employed. 

“One of my goals for writing Mosque4Mosque was to create as much space for Muslim and Arab artists in a theater that I don’t think they normally get. It feels like the sharing of something that we finally got a piece of. Knowing we’re sharing it rather than saving it for ourselves feels even better.”   v

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