Chicago playwright/director Seth Bockley teams up with musician/actor Ahmed Moneka (U.S. Debut) and Toronto-based actor/writer Jesse LaVercombe for the World Premiere of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. This powerful piece with live Arabic music, runs Friday, June 7 through Sunday, June 9 as part of the 2019 Pivot Arts Festival. The three artists share their experiences with Marketing Manager, Alexa Erbach.
AE: The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered the oldest surviving story ever written, dating back to 2000 BC. What about this story drew you to it and inspired you to create a new adaptation? Why is this centuries old tale still relevant today?
SB: The Epic is a great tragic poem with timeless themes. In particular the themes of hubris, friendship, masculinity and violence, and the fear of death, are all of course very much still with us as a species. Also, the work comes from ancient Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization’ and it’s beautiful to imagine how it must have influenced the flowering of other literature that came after it.
The story itself has a surprisingly contemporary sense of pessimism about the prospect of eternal life. As opposed to other more mystical or idealistic works of ancient religion, this one almost feels like it contains a cruel joke, in the way Gilgamesh seeks and almost reaches but ultimately cannot attain eternal life, and must resign himself to the reality of death.
The Epic has been adapted many times in all types of media, including theater. In fact, Ahmed’s father once played the role of Humbaba in an Arabic-language stage version! Like Greek mythology, the Bible and The Mahabharata, this story holds ancient wisdom; and like all great literature, it is rooted in a sense of character, action, adventure and transformation.
AE: When did you all meet, and how did you know that these were the artists you wanted to collaborate with on this truly epic project?
JL: I heard Ahmed sing around a campfire when we were both artists in residence at Driftwood Theatre here in Ontario. When I was visiting home in Minnesota, I basically got set up on a blind date with with Seth by another theatre artist, and we hit it off too. Ahmed told me the story of Gilgamesh, which we batted around for a little bit before pitching it to Seth; and a fateful Skype call later, the team was formed!
SB: Jesse impressed me from our first meeting as a searching, thoughtful artist who was clearly ambitious and genuinely curious. When he introduced me to Ahmed, and I got to hear Ahmed’s own interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, we had a joyous and surprising conversation. Ahmed struck me as utterly expressive, radiating enthusiasm, a love for art, a sophisticated sense of theater practice and a natural performer’s charisma. I think in that first conversation we covered a crazy amount of ground including Mesopotamian history, the dating scene in Toronto, music, theater history… sex, death and everything in-between. It set the tone for everything that followed.
AE: Gilgamesh and Enkidu is highly physical and musical. Can you describe what the development process was like (especially working with Danielle Baskerville) and tell us a little bit about the type of movement and music we’ll be seeing and hearing?
SB: Music is essential to the production. Ahmed brings “Maqam” to the table, a classical Arabic style of singing and percussion. In the production you will hear Ahmed’s uniquely rooted, joyous and mournful sound, mixed with African grooves and rhythms that Ahmed takes from his African roots. This sound combines with the North American tradition of jazz piano that Jesse provides. All of our instrumentation and vocalization is mixed through a live loop pedal and processor; this adds a contemporary edge and allows the actors to score their own movement and scene work. As far as movement, Jesse and Ahmed use repeated gesture, props and objects and static poses reminiscent of ancient tableaus that add an abstract, poetic physical dimension.
AE: Ahmed, part of your mission is to “help build a society where there is love.” How does Gilgamesh and Enkidu do this?
AM: This project is a window into the past and sheds light on the place where I was born and grew-up: Mésopotamie, Iraq. It was there where I learned how to believe in love and to share it in the present and the future. And that is exactly what I feel in this collaboration with Jesse and Seth. We are weaving together our experiences to bring this Epic to modern audiences and talk about friendship and connection between North American and Middle Eastern cultures, in order to live in better place. Most importantly, we are battling stereotypes and highlighting the similarities we as human beings all share.
AE: Ahmed, many of our audiences don’t know that you were forced into exile several years ago after appearing in a film that spoke of gay men- the first of its kind in Iraq. How has that experience influenced your work in Gilgamesh and Enkidu?
AM: I have always believed that “love is the main reason for a great future”. As an artist, my work focuses on human rights, especially in Baghdad. We have scenes sharing my exile journey with the audience and and attempt to explain the lessons I’ve learned from this experience in order to inspire other immigrants. It was so difficult at the beginning, but again, love helped me to find myself and connect with people. I truly believe that we all share the same desires, and through connection and relationships, I’ve learned how to harmonize with others. I’ve also learned that I still have a lot to discover!
AE: Seth, much of the work you adapt and direct tends to be very visually compelling. Can you elaborate on why this special touch is important to you and perhaps give us a little sneak peek into some of the spectacle we may be seeing?
SB: This is a sparse work where the visual theater, so to speak, comes from the actors’ bodies, instruments and a set of simple objects— a table, a piano, a drum, a pile of salt. As we will be performing in a thrust and in an intimate setting, the emphasis is on the voices, bodies and gestures of the actors as opposed to a spectacle element. But those details are carefully considered and loaded with visual symbolism. For example, the wooden table that is at the center of the staging echoes the wood of the famous Cedar Forest which is the prize of Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s great quest. The simple material of wood, hewn and shaped by human hands, is common to our civilization and that of ancient Mesopotamia, and links our culture with all the empires of the past. The same can be said for the skin of a drum or the tuned strings inside a piano— these are tools that have been with human bodies and voices since before recorded history.
Thank you Seth, Jesse and Ahmed! Gilgamesh and Enkidu is Friday, June 7 at 7pm; Saturday, June 8 at 3pm and Sunday, June 9 at 6pm.
Get a two-show discount if you see Gilgamesh with Girasol on Friday, June 7 or Search Party on Saturday, June9! For tickets, go to pivotarts.org/festival.