Review: 'Detour Guide' at Silk Road: His Egyptian roots, he found, were very different from Hollywood's version of Egypt
Karim Nagi’s spirited solo show, Detour Guide (presented in association with Stage Left Theatre), provided opportunities for both cathartic joy and sobering reflection.
Kerry Reid, Chicago Tribune
The terrorist murders at the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand cast an understandable pall Friday night at the opening of Silk Road Rising’s latest offering. But Karim Nagi’s spirited solo show, “Detour Guide” (presented in association with Stage Left Theatre), provided opportunities for both cathartic joy and sobering reflection.
Nagi, a native Egyptian who moved to California with his family as a child, crafts his show as both a riposte to Hollywood stereotypes of exotic “oriental” culture and as his own journey in understanding the complexities of the Arab world. Structured through a series of vignettes encompassing movement, music and spoken-word poetic interludes, “Detour Guide” is, as Nagi plainly tells us, designed to take us away from the familiar — and false — ideas about the region and its people. In the process, he also reconnects with aspects of Egyptian culture that fell by the wayside in his American-raised youth.
“Music became my nation,” Nagi declares early on, adding “And this drum, the tabla, derbeke, dumbek, whatever people want to call it, it took the heavy-metal kinks out of my hair, and got sand underneath my fingernails.” It’s clear that his musical passport bears stamps from an astounding array of influences, all of which come together near the end in a virtuoso display of his skills on the tabla. Nagi shows us the differences in tempo and rhythm that drummers in different nations across the Arab world use in their traditional music.
Sometimes the rhythmic distinctions are clear. Other times they are more subtle and require closer listening. That is of course the point — trying to understand any culture requires years of careful listening and appreciation for subtlety over broad-stroke, bad-faith generalizations.
In one segment, Nagi deconstructs the “Not Since Nineveh” scene from the 1955 film of the musical “Kismet,” where the cringe-worthy orientalism is on full Cinemascope display. As Western actors sing lyrics such as “Our palaces are gaudier / our alleyways are bawdier / our princes more autocratic here / our beggars more distinctly aromatic here,” Nagi stands to one side making sly comments, like an ethnographic take on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
But then he flips the script by dropping out the soundtrack altogether and replaying the clip with only his own percussion as accompaniment. It’s a smart wordless way of making the case for synthesis of West and East and reclaiming old hoary stories with a fresh beat.
It’s also a departure from Nagi’s sometimes-repetitive verbal discourses on the negative impact of stereotypes. He’s right, of course — but showing, not telling, tends to have greater heft. Both Nagi’s performance and Anna C. Bahow’s focused but unfussy direction work best when Nagi (who is as skilled a dancer as he is a musician) uses his movement and musicality to flesh out the talking points. Samia Malik’s set places us in an open-air market/cafe, with Ellie Humphrys’ warm lighting palette suggesting both sunny days and starry nights, adding visual delight to the aural textures.
Nagi is the best proof of his observation that Arab families should encourage their children to pursue careers in the arts and journalism to counter the overwhelmingly western take on their worlds from Hollywood and news media. His smart discourse on the nature of envy as a key dynamic in the relationship of the west and east leads to an exploration of the iconography of the hamsa, or Fatma’s Hand, used to ward off “the evil eye.”
One of the most emotionally resonant vignettes finds Nagi playing Marwa, an immigrant woman from Syria working in a Middle Eastern restaurant in America — the kind of place where they use (horror of horrors!) canned hummus. She’s a trained classical musician but cannot find work in her profession in her new world. Once again, the words drop away as Nagi mimes her conducting an orchestra, using ordinary kitchen implements. It’s a lovely transformation and a wistful reminder of how much immigrants must sometimes sacrifice so much of what they love for the sake of staying alive.
Other scenes involve the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising, in which Nagi’s friends participated, and a journey to southern Egypt, where his parents first met. Here is where Nagi’s “Detour Guide” becomes the most personal — even though he notes that his parents weren’t from the town where they met and he wasn’t raised there. Nagi’s desire to reconnect with a seemingly simpler and more authentic place may have its own “finding your roots” cliches. But as with so much of the show, Nagi transforms that desire into a physical manifestation of beauty and joy.
Kerry Reid is a freelance critic.
Review: “Detour Guide” (3 stars)