Lovers in a dangerous time

High school romance onstage at MTYP pairs Arab girl, troubled white boy in social-media era fraught with judgment, racism, recriminations


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FOR his teen play Jabber, Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef thought the best place to bring together a hijab-wearing Muslim girl and a troubled white boy was in the cauldron of emotional turmoil known as high school.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/10/2014 (3166 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

FOR his teen play Jabber, Vancouver playwright Marcus Youssef thought the best place to bring together a hijab-wearing Muslim girl and a troubled white boy was in the cauldron of emotional turmoil known as high school.

“It’s like a petri dish where all these people of all histories and backgrounds are thrown together,” says Youssef, who is making his Winnipeg debut with Jabber at Manitoba Theatre for Young People on Wednesday, Oct 15.

“It’s this place where we experience so much of what gets talked about in the adult world and where all these people from all over the world attempt to get along in this great Canadian experiment. It fundamentally happens inside high school.”

Teen romance blooms amid culture clash in MTYP
Teen romance blooms amid culture clash in MTYP's Jabber.

Jabber is a modern Romeo-and-Juliet romance between improbable lovers. Fatima is a relatively new immigrant from Egypt and member of a conservative family that forces her to switch schools after a racist incident. She is one of the self-described “jabbers,” a group of girls whose school dress includes a head scarf known as a hijab. He is Jorah, a Grade 10 student who has a temper and a bad reputation.

Youssef’s hour-long drama premiered at Montreal Geordie’s Productions in 2012 and toured Quebec and Eastern Canada into 2013. Last year it was picked up by Young People’s Theatre in Toronto and Geordie will soon tour it to the eastern United States.

“It is also about the dangers of sharing information online, which we are constantly wrestling with,” says newly installed MTYP artistic director Pablo Felices-Luna. “Talk to any teenager about the lives they live online.

“I believe we have developed a culture in which we share before we think. That is why the comment section on YouTube is one of the most depressing places on the Internet. People write without thinking of consequences or tone. The people respond to the comments without thinking. I think it’s an important conversation to be had.”

The 45-year-old Montreal-born playwright and son of an Egyptian immigrant presents Jabber through a “let’s say” storytelling device that allows teen audiences to make their own choices about whether to buy into/believe what occurs onstage or not.

Youssef, the father of two teen boys, says that if society truly wants kids to be engaged and critical thinkers, it’s important not to make the show feel like a politically correct class lesson.

“Kids understand the deep dilemma that we all feel but that is most acute and visible in high school,” he says. “You know — who do I feel like inside and what does the larger group see when they look at me? Fatima and Jorah are negotiating that by starting this unlikely relationship.”

Hijab-wearing young women are becoming a common sight in the classroom and Youssef says that he has seen Jabber audiences in which 20 per cent students are sporting the head scarves.

“It’s a thrilling experience,” says Youssef, who attended the National Theatre School of Canada, where he was classmate of Winnipegger Ann Hodges, the director of Jabber. “They don’t see themselves represented in the school environment very often, except among themselves. When they see it, they engage. That’s been my experience.”

Jabber is a word he coined, but he’s thinking of changing the play’s name when it is published next year. Some people might think he is slagging their language as jabbering or associate it with the Lewis Carroll nonsense poem Jabberwocky. Youssef is contemplating retitling the work Hijabber.

He has written often about the Middle East, as in the war-on-terror satire Ali and Ali & the aXes of Evil and the Gulf War drama A Line in the Sand (both with Guillermo Verdecchia). Youseff was raised with no connection to his Christian family in Egypt, although he was quite visible as an Arab.

“Early in my writing, as many young writers do, I wrestled with questions of identity,” he says. “Going back (twice in last three years) has fuelled my interest. I also think I am constantly interested in what we imagine makes us different from other people. And as a fully enculturated Middle-Eastern Canadian, that’s a potent question for me, personally, and as someone who came into adulthood in a period of non-stop wars with Middle Eastern countries and groups, not to mention 9/11.

“And I sometimes think that what we imagine is different about other people tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the other people.”

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