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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights: ‘This Is Who I Am’ explores generational, physical distance


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Evren Odcikin is associate artistic director at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

‘This Is Who I Am’
Through Jan. 3, 2021
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
$15
woollymammoth.net

“Queer, Middle Eastern, American, immigrant, and theater artist: Fortunately, all those identities live together and work for me,” says Evren Odcikin, associate artistic director at the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).

Best known for staging new works, Odcikin, 40, directs playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “This Is Who I Am,” a world premiere two-hander newly commissioned by D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (streaming live at woollymammoth.net through Jan. 3).

Performed live in real time via Zoom, “This Is Who I Am” explores the generational and physical distance between an estranged father (Ramsey Faragallah) and son (Yousof Sultani). Connected by video chat from their respective kitchens in Ramallah, West Bank, and New York City, they discuss with equal parts humor, frustration, and sadness their past and present relationship while simultaneously baking (yes, actually) a beloved family recipe.

Born in Turkey, Odcikin came to the U.S. to attend Princeton University on full scholarship, majoring in computer science with a minor in theater. He then headed west to San Francisco where he became involved with Golden Thread Productions, a company dedicated to exploring Middle Eastern culture and identity worldwide. Founded by a queer Middle Eastern immigrant, it was a place where Odcikin could learn and grow comfortably. “I was welcomed and didn’t have to fight my identities to make a space for myself in the American theater,” he says.

He now lives close to OSF in Ashland, Ore., with his husband, an artmaker who does drag, and their dog Weasel.

WASHINGTON BLADE: How did you become a part of “This Is Who I Am”?

EVREN ODCIKIN: I’d met the playwright at Golden Thread, and I knew Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director Maria Manuela Goyanes. So, with this small, 70-minute-long play with two actors, we were going to figure out live theater making in a digital setting. It was a magic moment.

Ultimately, original producers PlayCo and Woolly Mammoth were joined by American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, the Guthrie Theater, and OSF. A beautiful play by a Palestinian writer got a national platform with some of the leading theaters in the country

BLADE: Is that unusual for a play like this?

ODCIKIN: Typically, with Palestinian works in the U.S., a lot of politics is imposed on the plays. Here, the occupation is the context, and the play specifically speaks to what it means to live and grow up in an occupied state, but does it from a lived experience rather than rhetoric.

If we can give a sense of what it’s like for Palestinians to live under those conditions first hand, that’s what theater can do better than other mediums.

BLADE: How does being queer factor into your work?

ODCIKIN: I’d say that for me, it’s in the style. While you won’t see it in this play, I’m obsessed with camp and gender bending, and interested in queer aesthetic that uses comedy and surprise as a political tool.

Any work that shakes up our heteronormative, cis-normative expectation as an audience to wake us up to politics of our given moment – and to me, the best drag does that – that’s what I’m really interested in.

BLADE: And how was your experience with virtual directing?

ODCIKIN: Wasn’t too sure when I started. Said yes to it as an experiment. No one is really doing this truly live, every night performance. We were the first out of the gate.

I soon discovered Zoom fatigue is real. The actors never met in person. We met the stage manager only virtually. But as an artist, I felt like I was making a play.

And while I won’t say there’s been a silver lining – pandemic is too awful – there were some positive things. I’m a bit of an optimist — you have to be in the job I have. My theater community has expanded to D.C. and internationally. And it’s the first time in 20 years that my family in Turkey will see a play I’ve directed.

BLADE: And your thoughts on reopening?

ODCIKIN: At OSF, we’ve faced a lot head on- pandemic, environmental crisis fires that went through Ashland. And the racial reckoning that came to a head after George Floyd’s death.

Change making is a central tenant of how to survive and thrive and not just withstand crisis. It’s exciting to focus on questioning our structure and figuring out how we’ll make excellent work when we get to the other side of this. I feel lucky and honored to be one of the folks who gets play a part.

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Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights