When the Malas twins were 16, they saw a play together and “decided we must become actors”, Mohammed says over coffee the next day (he could just as well be Ahmed; the twins often wear matching outfits and have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences). But their application to the highly competitive Syrian High Institute of Theatrical Arts was rejected three times. “They told us: ‘You’re not talented, you won’t be actors.’” Syria has a long and illustrious theatrical tradition and a burgeoning movie and TV industry that has resulted in some very popular and well-produced TV serials of late. The brothers auditioned for TV and film parts but never got any major roles (“For TV, you need connections,” Ahmed says), and ended up working full-time at the children’s theatre in Damascus. The twins channelled their frustrated ambitions into Melodrama, a play that is as self-referential as you can get: actors portraying actors who spend the play talking about acting. There is no plot, just a whirlwind of allusions to high art and pop culture.
The play begins with scores of weeping men and women, all in black, walking in a funeral procession, laying photographs of Egypt’s prominent deceased economists, actresses and actors, and political leaders on a sandy grave symbolizing the Egyptian past. The play mocks a plethora of flaws, including bread queues, the chasm between rich and poor, corruption, unemployment and the failure of state institutions. By mocking businessmen, the play hit a sensitive nerve with large segments in Egyptian society that believe the rich survive on tight networks of corruption that drain national resources to serve the vested interests of the few at the expense of the many. “Coffee, No Sugar” offers a ruthless depiction of the sweeping social chasm. On one hand, it depicts a businessman who prayed to God to inspire him with a solution to his dilemma of whether to build a square or rouund swimming pool at his villa. On the other hand, the play shocks spectators with a scene of a bunch of young men who threw themselves into a deadly fight over few loaves of bread.The show has been greeted with extreme enthusiasm. Seeing the play seems to be almost cathartic, like attending an uproarious funeral for the country. In Al Masri Al Youm, Sulayman Gouda writes that "the show sheds tears over our situation, and invites us to shed tears, and no play in 2008 has attracted people's attention as forcefully as 'Black Coffee'.... When you look around, searching for something to staunch your pain, temporarily, from the sorrows you see, in every corner [...] you won't find anything but this play to cling to! As if it were a life preserver, that maybe expresses what troubles you on the inside, your grief, regret, suffering and pain. (This is my own, approximate translation). Yet as my friend Sumita (who sent me the link, thanks!) points out, it is a little facile to throw all the blame on "businessmen" and the pernicious influences of the Gulf --it's a typical left-wing analysis that allows one to feel indignant and superior without taking too many risks (by criticizing the government in detail) or responsibilities. Being nostalgic about Egypt's "better days" also ignores the way the roots of many of today's problems--authoritarianism, corruption, incompetence--were laid long ago. But what the success of the show says to me most clearly is how widely acknowledged it is today in Egypt that the whole country is at a low, low point. Anyway, I haven't see the show and I'd love hear from those who have. I hear it's the collaborative work of several young screen-writers, and is basically a collection of skits. This is what I've gleaned, because I wasn't able to see it. As "Babylon and Beyond" notes, "In recent months, finding a ticket was a hopeless endeavor." Last summer it wasn't easy either. A friend and I were kept standing in line for an hour, watching helplessly as several ladies--some associated with the government theater where the play was being shown--cut in line in front of us. By the time we got to the window, there were no tickets. The young functionary in charge of organizing the line, when asked why he hadn't stopped the cutting, shrugged his shoulders and then angrily said that it wasn't his responsibility. It was all pretty ironically appropriate for a show about the ills of Egyptian society.