Born to Christian parents who emigrated to America from Ramallah in Palestine, Shamieh grew up in San Francisco, where her first play on record, One Arabian Night, was a finalist in the under-18 Young Playwrights Festival. The drama was given a Harvard student production, about which the Harvard Crimson critic wrote: “One Arabian Night, by Betty Shamieh ’96, is both bold and honorable in trying to address the ways in which Arab-American women must negotiate their sexuality within American and Arab-American society.”
While studying playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, from 1997 to 2000, Shamieh worried about being pigeonholed as Arab American, but nevertheless wrote her first two plays exploring her heritage. Chocolate in Heat and Roar were both produced in New York shortly after her graduation:. “They’re not about politics,” Shamieh told New York Times reporter Liesl Schillinger, “but they’re inherently political. Because if you’ve never heard a perspective, it makes it political.”
The 2004 New Group premiere of Roar was one of the first off-Broadway productions by an Arab American playwright. In the New York Times Spring Theatre Preview section, critic Margo Jefferson wrote, “Ms. Shamieh’s rich, urgent prose will catch you up, then fling you into a character’s life as though it were your own. In her family drama, ‘Roar,’ we meet two generations of Palestinian-Americans living in Detroit during the first gulf war. Don’t expect the grim worthiness of a ‘problem play’; expect unpredictable events, relationships and humor.”
In several of her subsequent works, Shamieh has examined contemporary issues through the lens of history. The first draft of The Black Eyed was her immediate response to the Twin Towers’ destruction: “It just came out of me,” she told Time Out/New York writer Diane Snyder. “”I was really interested in sinking my teeth into what it was like being a Palestinian-American living in New York after 9/11. I realized that to write political theater with any sort of sense of humor, or humanity, you have to put it in cultural historic context. So I started with Delilah….” Shamieh’s other history plays are Territories (set in the Crusades) and Kingmakers (inspired by the life of Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt’s first female pharoah). Territories opened at the Magic Theater in 2008 and will have its European premiere in 2009 as a co-production of the European Union’s Capital of Culture Festival and the Landes Theater of Austria.
In 2005, Shamieh’s new play Again and Against, about a Palestinian-American graduate student being accused of terrorism by an Arab-American, was developed by London’s Royal Court Theatre and presented in the 2006 Public Theater’s New Work Now series. For the Naked Angels Issues Project about the Iraq War, she wrote a short play Time Machine, “in which poets have their say, except, of course, for the one who is Arab-American.” She recently received a Time Warner Commission from Second Stage to write As Soon as Impossible, about two men from different cultural backgrounds whose long friendship is challenged when a granddaughter joins their annual fishing trip.
“I’m always trying to create work that you don’t know whether it’s comedy or tragedy,” Shamieh told San Francisco reporter Jean Schiffman. “Are you going to laugh or have your gut pulled out? It’s my sensibility as a person. Life is so great—but people are dying in Somalia….I want to write about Arab-Americans hopefully in the way Tennessee Williams wrote about Southern society. Southern culture is very different from the rest of the country, but everybody identifies with Blanche DuBois, she’s so intensely human.”
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