A deeply personal and very clever piece of storytelling, but Becoming Scheherazade feels more ephemeral than epic.
Becoming Scheherazade tells the story of Kamaal Hussain’s family, from his father’s political activism in Baghdad, to moving to the UK and living as gay, secular, and Arab.
It’s very difficult to criticise something like Becoming Scheherazade because it’s such a personal piece, and when a personal piece is as sincere and genuine as this it’s something that certainly deserves attention and engagement regardless of any gripes that can be had. And it’s not like the criticism I have for Becoming Scheherazade is about the place this story comes from or how its performed: simply put, it’s too short.
Hussain’s tale is absolutely personal, sincere, and genuine, and is a rare thing as Becoming Scheherazade is play about a non-white homosexual experience: a section that is desperately underrepresented in gay male theatre. But it’s not just about being gay. Hussain and their company, The Thief of Baghdad, is also committed to telling stories of Arab diaspora. So Becoming Scheherazade is more than just and LGBTQIA piece of theatre, and has much more depth and intrigue than simple sexuality. Indeed, it’s great to hear that this has been longlisted for an Amnesty International award. All of this means that Becoming Scheherazade is absolutely worth your time (especially, as it won’t take up much of it).
What’s great about Becoming Scheherazade is that it uses a very clever narrative device to tell Hussain’s family story. Hussain parallels his father and his’ tale with that of the Seven Voyages of Sinbad from 1001 Arabian Nights: a marvellous and witty cultural nod to who Hussain is as well as providing something original and interesting as to how Becoming Sheherazade plays out. The story itself is one that also sets out to challenge perceptions of LGBTQIA of Middle-Eastern origin and Hussain’s struggles with homophobia, xenophobia, and family politics makes this a deep and intricate tale.
The only problem with Becoming Scheherazade is that it’s incredibly short and you never feel you’re not getting as much out of it as you could. Whilst Hussain’s lead up to his final “I am what I am” statement on who he is and how he lives his life is important, it just lacks a big impact. Although it doesn’t ever feel rushed, at around 30 minutes long it just feels ephemeral. But always leave your audience wanting more, right? And this is exactly what Becoming Scheherazade could do with: more of Hussain’s brilliant observation and insight to really bulk out the show to make it something even more edifying, especially in expanding on some of the points of his story which are intriguing but never really fully explored.
Hussain is a lovely storyteller. Gregarious and engaging, Becoming Scheherazade is sincere and captivating under Hussain’s retelling of it. There’s nothing gimmicky or over earnest here; it’s just pure and simple storytelling done with real heart and humanity.
Although a short story rather than an epic, Becoming Scheherazade is as beguiling as any one of the 1001 Arabian Nights.