Tackling gender sensitive insights on the lives of Egyptian youth with a zesty twist of comic relief, Untangled is nothing short of an intriguing and entertaining cross between arts and development.
A project that started out as an informative artistic cooperation between the Egyptian National Council for Women (NCW), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Wujoud Films and a team of performers and organizers, led by Mrs. Sally Zohney, soon grew to be in popular demand and a candidate of the National Theater Competition months after the opening show.
Zohney is an Egyptian feminist, women’s rights advocate and a storyteller. With a Master’s degree in International Relations and the Middle East, Zohney implemented gender-based UN projects. Against a backdrop of extensive experience on women’s rights, Zohney conceptualized the play on a wider scope, “we were very cautious of walking the line of the black-white binary,” explained the co-author, “yes, young women in Egypt are marginalized and subject to discrimination. And yes, this will be reflected in some of the sketches. However, the stereotypically consequential statement that men reside on the dark side of reality is inaccurate.” To her, both men and women face social and cultural biases that contort their experience and quality of living.
Research inspired the inclusion of male narratives; they similarly go through: discrimination, inequality and violence. “Men too face familial and gender based pressures, they are not allowed to be caregivers in the emotional sense, they are forcefully steered away from careers falsely perceived as feminine, such as nursing.” There’s one sketch that addresses young marriages and its challenges: the elders of the couple’s families are at the center stage talking about the details of the wedding and the house, whereas the young couple themselves are on the side; literally marginalized from a discussion that decides their future. His family brought him to marry this stranger just as much as hers are doing the same. “They are both being forced to marry someone they have never met, never knew and not even remotely interested in.”
“We [encouraged that actors] play the roles that sharply contrast their reality, to enrich their understanding of the ‘other side’ of the story”
Zohney co-authored Untangled with a renowned male author and playwright, Mohamed Fouad Abdin, who she describes as “100% artist, so our perspectives were sharply contrasting. And in the beginning he was skeptical about working with a feminist. Writing came much easier once we aligned our concepts going in.” With that in mind, the development of Untangled necessitated a series of thematic workshops with the whole team to discuss the academic narratives, facts and testimonials, to enrich their understanding of the topics addressed in the play. For Zohney, the workshops achieved much more than just that, “workshops revealed the range of differences in the team, the potential to embrace each other’s differences and harmonize team work, so much so that social cliques and gender groupings dissolved and feedback after rehearsals went around the table with ease.”
Zohney recalled the first thematic workshop and how she “poked and provoked to see how they would react. Well, they almost set the room on fire!” she laughed. The team includes a late thirties surgeon, sharing the stage with a twenty-year-old sophomore at the Acting Institute; as well as young men and women from Upper Egypt and other conservative societies, sharing the stage with graduates from American Universities. The young women were more vocal about their experiences and frustration, while the young men took some time to warm up. “We [encouraged that actors] play the roles that sharply contrast their reality, to enrich their understanding of the ‘other side’ of the story”.
So far, Untangled has played for five nights under the endorsement of the Council and UNDP, 2 nights on private funding from Wujoud Films and pro-bono performance from the team, and twice as a candidate in the National Theatre Competition. The passion the team possess towards this innovative work of art and development is nothing shy of impressive. “We have much more in mind”, Zohney enthused, “Untangled is one project that can grow into more sketches and many directions”. It builds on real stories that grow of their own accord with the addition of every new member.
“I am a bridge, no longer taking the stage but still telling stories with soul, meaning and purpose”
“We are hoping to cross the boundaries of Cairo soon and keep pushing from there,” she shared, “we also hope it goes on TV, we worked very hard on making sure the language is family-friendly”. With the NCW as a technical arm, getting the support of a national agency was a magnanimous support to both method and approach of the play project, and an incremental push for international endorsement by the UNDP.
The creation of Untangled has revealed profound conclusions to Zohney about herself. “I am a bridge, no longer taking the stage but still telling stories with soul, meaning and purpose”. Zohney now perceives herself as a medium and an advocate responsible to channel stories of one group, through a second group, to a thoughtful third group. And while she’s learned new insights about herself, she sees ample room for future steps, “this experience is overwhelming, time consuming as it may be, I willingly want to move forward with it. It’s a learning curve and I’m not done yet.”
Untangled will have another screening in Cairo in the first week of December.