Theater of All Possibilities: The Criminal Queerness Festival

Rehearsals for the play "Ashes" on East 47th street, NYC
Photo by Antonio M. Rosario/BRIC StudioBK

Theater of All Possibilities: The Criminal Queerness Festival

Founded by current Artistic Director Adam Odsess-Rubin, National Queer Theater is an innovative collective dedicated to celebrating the brilliance of generations of LGBTQ artists. Through art and free community programs, they provide a home for unheard storytellers and activists in the pursuit of collective liberation.  

This month, they celebrated Pride with Criminal Queerness Festival, co-founded by Egyptian playwright Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, which supports the development and production of new plays by international and immigrant queer theater-makers.

This year, they invited a trio of playwrights to take their work from script to stage — specifically, the Hearst Stage at Lincoln Center Restart Stages. In anticipation of their upcoming live performances on June 24 and 25, we spoke with Dima Mikhayel Matta, Victor I. Cazares and Martin Yousif Zebari about their work, their worlds and their resilience. 

Dima Mikhayel Matta (she/they) is a Beirut-based writer and actor, a Fulbright scholar and an MFA graduate in creative writing from Rutgers University. Acting for the stage since 2006, in 2014 they founded Cliffhangers — the first bilingual storytelling platform in Lebanon. Their autobiographical first play, “This is not a memorized script, this is a well-rehearsed story," originally directed by Yara Bou Nassar, premiered in Beirut in February 2020 and toured to London, New York and Belfast. They are currently working on their second play.


ACE HOTEL: What is one spot that exemplifies your Beirut? 

Dima Mikhayel Matta: There’s a bar in Gemmayzeh street in Beirut called Torino. The street is full of bars and beautiful old Lebanese homes. Torino is a very small and narrow bar and has some of the city’s best cocktails. The words “Torino Express” are in red neon at the entrance and they envelop the bar with a constant crimson glow. On weekends, the bar gets so packed that people spill out onto the sidewalks and have their drinks leaning against the wall or against cars. And even though it’s a tiny place, we always found space to dance there.

AH: The pandemic has obviously had a profound impact on artists working in theater. Have there been any bright moments in the past year that have helped motivate you through this time?

DMM:These have been exceptionally difficult times for all of us, and even more so for people in Lebanon. But some of the bright moments have been having the possibility to be in the same (virtual) room with artists from all over the world, which otherwise would not be feasible. We had access to art and plays that we would not have been able to witness, and going through all of this knowing that the sense of community translated beautifully online. We were not alone.

AH: What lessons have you taken away from time spent in quarantine as a writer? Do you feel compelled to write about your experiences, or do you want to put it behind you?

DMM:It’s too soon to tell whether I’ll be compelled to write about these strange, apocalyptic times. We are all recovering, and I think that writing comes after at least some distance and at least a little more healing. We cannot forget what happened, or what is still happening in so many countries, even if we wanted to. But I don’t know yet how it will all manifest in my artistic practice. This quarantine made me realize that time is a luxury I did not have before, this slowing down, it’s so necessary for so many of us to be able to write and create. 

AH: How do you address censorship in your career as an openly queer playwright?

DMM: In Lebanon, a lot of us have found loopholes and ways to bypass censorship, so much so that the process itself is worthy of an art piece. Improvisation is not subject to censorship, so a lot of us who write for the stage just remove the bits that would be censored and replace them with: “the actor improvises.” Of course, this is only one simple way to go around censorship, but a lot of artists don’t even have the privilege to even try to do this.

In Lebanon, a lot of us have found loopholes and ways to bypass censorship, so much so that the process itself is worthy of an art piece.

Martin Yousif Zebari (he/they) is an Iraqi-born, Assyrian-American, actor and writer based in Chicago. Layalina, his first play, had its first developmental workshop at Goodman Theatre’s inaugural Future Labs, directed by Azar Kazemi. As an actor, he has worked with National Queer Theatre, The Angle Project, Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Court Theatre, Broken Nose Theatre Company, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, Illinois Shakespeare Festival and has appeared in NBC’s Chicago Med. Martin holds a BFA in Acting from the Arts University of Bournemouth, England and is represented by Stewart Talent Chicago.


AH: What is one spot that exemplifies your hometown? 

Martin Yousif Zebari: What an interesting question. At first thought, I couldn’t even really pick a “hometown.” I was born and raised in Iraq and Syria and moved to Skokie, IL when I was 9, so my “hometown experience” has always been split. And because of this split, I don’t really feel hometown connections to places in either. I guess if I was going to imagine one, it would be a small, hole-in-the-wall, open-ceiling Shawarma joint in Baghdad where yogurt drinks are complimentary with every meal and every meal ends with a hot cup of Chai.

AH: The pandemic has obviously had a pretty profound impact on artists working in theater. Have there been any bright moments in the past year that have helped motivate you through this time?

MYZ: So many! The severity of this pandemic has been on my mind and heart since the get go, but I am extremely privileged to be walking away with many highlights. With the virtual world that was thrust upon us, there came the opportunity to expand beyond my physical community and connect with folks based in different cities. I’ve gotten to work on several New York projects, a project in Minnesota, and I have an upcoming project in Texas in July. All of these opportunities would not have happened without the pandemic and I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful folks I’ve gotten to meet throughout this journey.

AH: What lessons have you taken away from time spent in quarantine as a writer? Do you feel compelled to write about your experiences, or do you want to put it behind you?

MYZ: I wasn’t a writer before the pandemic; I became one just about 8 months ago. I mean, I guess you could say that once a writer, always a writer, but I didn’t have a craft practice for writing before November 2020. I didn’t have a writing process, a development process, an editing process, etc — so that’s one giant lesson I’m taking with me from quarantine. I don’t feel compelled to write about Covid necessarily, but I certainly feel drawn to write about the world we live in during and post-covid. Unfortunately for us humans, the pandemic brought with it a slew of awakenings/reckoning and that’s what I want to write about. It’s definitely in my current play, “Layalina,” and there’s more I want to expand on in future work.

Victor I. Cazares (they/them) is a non-binary Poz Queer Indigenous Mexican Artist who has had stints at Yale and Brown. During the pandemic, Victor debuted virtually at Carnegie Hall as part of the Voices of Hope Festival in partnership with National Queer Theater and The LGBT Center. They also taught a tuition-free class for emerging immigrant playwrights as part of PEN America's DREAMing Out Loud program with NQT and NYTW. Their plays include: american (tele)visions and Pinching Pennies with Penny Marshall (NYTW); Ramses contra los monstruos; We Were Eights Years in Powder; and «when we write with ashes» (NQT and Lincoln Center Restart Stages). Victor is currently the Tow Playwright-in-Residence at New York Theatre Workshop.


AH: What is one spot that exemplifies your El Paso?

Victor I. Cazares: I refuse to choose ONE spot. I've just flown into my hometown after 15 months of not being here, the longest I've ever been without recharging my desert El Paso Borderland Succulent Batteries Yes Gawd Tongue Pop. So I'm going to pull the pandemic card and the “you can't tell an Indigenous person what to do” card and talk about three spots.

The first is an incongruous one. It's the bar in the Paso del Norte Hotel (formerly the Camino Real Hotel) in downtown El Paso. The bar isn't much. But it has a Tiffany glass domed ceiling and while it's beautiful, I've always wanted to write a movie in which a drag queen falls through it, shattering it into a million pieces as she lands in the arms of a mariachi serenading a bored crowd.

Two: I can't live without Rafa's Burritos. Listen, I've been a size queen since I was a child. These burritos are 16 inches long and they allow you to pick two different guisados/fillings. First, I just need to say that everything you know about burritos is wrong. This fucking country treats everything like a fucking sandwich and burritos are no fucking exception. Let me say this clearly: A burrito is not a fucking sandwich. When I go to Rafa’s, I order a burrito that is half mole and half chile verde and each side is delicious but the best part is the middle, the border where the juices from each guisado bleed into each other and make heaven in my mouth. 

Three: I can’t live without the Fiesta Drive-In Adult Film Theater aka the desert porn palace where I lost my second virginity. I call it my second virginity because my first one was such a bad experience (I used my grandma’s olive-oil scented Avon hand lotion as lube) that I can’t possibly count it as the definitive lost virginity. In any case, it’s one of the last porn drive-in theaters in the world and it somehow survived the pandemic, whereas the Starbucks on my block in Portland did not. It’s out in the middle of nowhere and you can fuck inside their little facility or outside of your parked car next to mesquites and yucca plants and you have to watch out for black widows, scorpions and if you were there in the 90s, rattlesnakes.

AH: The pandemic has obviously had a profound impact on artists working in theater. Have there been any bright moments in the past year that have helped motivate you through this time?

VIC: I was an Artistic Instigator at New York Theatre Workshop this past season and was able to be a pioneer (aka guinea pig) in digital theater with my play Pinching Pennies with Penny Marshall: A Zoom Webinar for OnlyFans Content Creators. It was an opportunity to bring to life my friend Jesus I. Valles’s Mexican Penny Marshall impression that we created during our annual Poz-ada de Navidad in El Paso (for the gringos: a posada is sorta like a live nativity with a roving party of Mexicans asking you to house them. Most of you will say no, but then the last person will say yes and we have a huge party in their house. We call this move “The Reverse Pilgrim,” or, if you’re really nasty, “Montezuma’s Christmas Revenge.”) It was a beautiful team of mostly queer and trans Iranian, Mexican, Filipino, Egyptian-Palestinian, Black, Black Puerto Rican artists and it was just so wonderful to be together even if the mainstream press didn’t pay attention to us. 

AH: What lessons have you taken away from time spent in quarantine as a writer? Do you feel compelled to write about your experiences, or do you want to put it behind you?

VIC: What I’ve learned from time spent in quarantine as a writer is that if I pay for a pro Scruff subscription, I will literally spend all my time on it even if there’s now way of hooking up with people. People doom scroll on Facebook and in order to keep myself from doing that, I sex-fantasy scrolled on Scruff. It’s not sustainable. And re: will I write about these strange times? Absolutely fucking not. One of the things I learned while working on NYTW’s Holiday Follies (with Annaleigh Ashford and Michael Urie) is that artists largely ignored the Pandemic of 1918 (the Spanish Flu) and the writers that did deal with it did it only marginally. There’s no movie about this time, no play about it, and honestly, I want the same to be true of this pandemic. It has been so awful. If we ever do emerge from this moment of death and isolation, I want to banish it from memory. But I do hope we explore the extenuating factors that have made this pandemic so catastrophic: global inequality and the fascist leaders that brought ruin to our lands.

AH: What does the Criminal Queerness Festival mean to you? How do you address censorship in your career as an openly queer playwright?

VIC: My focus is on artists that have de-colonial projects and resist neoliberal “diversity” impulses. And this is why the Criminal Queerness Festival means the world to me right now: I get to be in conversation with other writers and artists that are fighting for and imagining a decolonized world. National Queer Theater goes beyond superficial “representation.” It’s not enough to have an artist who is X identity. You have to have something to say and that something has to be radical and liberating and forward thinking. 

In terms of censorship — I have this spiel about Latinx producers censoring an entire generation’s plays about the Drug War in Mexico during the early 2010s because it didn’t fit their vision of respectability politics or, worse, possibly aligned a person’s human rights with their ability to be a good citizen. If you were a good Latinx citizen, then good, let’s tell your story. But if you are a Latinx person with a drug problem or who has been near violence, then no thank you, we’re not going to let you tell your story. I guess I gave you the spiel.