Rather than attend the Screen Actors Guild awards this past weekend, Kevin Spacey opted to watch 34 Arab actors perform a play as part of his initiative to support local talent.
The cast included men and women, 25-years-old or younger, who come from war-torn areas of the Middle East. Abduljabbar al-Suhili, 25, will be returning from the workshop to his home in Sanaa, Yemen, which is currently without a stable leader and has been plagued by attacks from al-Qaida, political instability, and rebel Houthi.
Given the crisis in his native country, al-Suhili says pursuing a career in the arts is a luxury, and that acting isn’t considered a profession.
“The state bodies are preoccupied with the constitution, the transitional phase and security and stability because of the political situation there,” he said. “This has impacted artists because we are unable to fulfill our ambitions in culture or artistic efforts on stage or in music. We have become concerned with earning a living.”
With the help of Spacey, who won a SAG award for his role on House of Cards, many people, like al-Suhili, were able to escape that reality for two weeks.
A joint initiative was launched in 2011 by the Kevin Spacey Foundation and Emirati businessman Badr Jafar, called Middle East Theatre Academy.
Through the nonprofit, al-Suhili and other aspiring actors were flown expense-free to the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE. Only 34 actors were selected from a pool of 300 applicants.
This marked the first time the workshop had taken place in the Middle East. The previous two were held in the United States and United Kingdom.
The students trained with professional acting coaches from the foundation for two weeks before performing the fictional play, “Dhow Under the Sun.”
The setting of the play is a refugee camp stricken with issues of corruption and poverty. Love and hope are also part of the show’s narrative.
“Dhow Under the Sun” premiered Sunday to an intimate gathering which included ruler of the emirate of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi.
Spacey, who coached the young actors before the show, told the audience that he grew as an actor by performing in settings like the one provided.
“Tonight is the kind of night that I grew up with, that I experienced very young because in my theater class I got to be part of many programs where I was brought together with other emerging artists, put on plays, did workshops,” he said. “Tonight we celebrate…bringing together these young remarkable talents from so many different places as well.”
Executive Director of KSF Steven Winter, who worked with Spacey for ten years, said his former colleague is passionate about helping artists advance their careers using the creative industries.
“I think probably because he was a beneficiary of the sorts of programs that we run when he was a young person,” said Winter.
The play was commissioned exclusively for the workshop and was written by Iraqi-British playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak. The central question remained: Do you want to be safe or do you want to be happy?
The question was directed at the audience, as well as the young talent who followed a career path of uncertainty in the arts in an unstable environment like the Middle East.
With Spacey and Jafar sitting front row, the play also poked fun at celebrity culture and wealthy men in the oil industry. In one particular scene, the residents of the camp tell a young boy that the world only cares about their plight when Angelina Jolie passes through.