“What kind of God teaches people to hate their own flesh and blood?” This is the question that writer/performer Ramy El-Etreby struggles with in the wake of his public outing by The L.A. Times. It happened after El-Etreby was cast as a gay Muslim in a play: interviewed about the role, he revealed that he himself was both gay and Muslim. As homosexuality is haram (forbidden) in Islam, at least according to El-Etreby’s devoutly religious parents, this personal revelation sent shockwaves through his family and his Muslim community in Southern California.
Growing up in Orange County as the son of Egyptian immigrants, El-Etreby “numbs gay” throughout his childhood and even into his college years. After college, at age 22, he meets his first gay friend, Corey, in a jacuzzi at the gym. Despite their meeting locale, with its potential for sensual encounters, they remain just friends, though for a time El-Etreby often wishes for more.
A stereotypical blonde surfer dude, Corey introduces El-Etreby to Hunter S. Thompson, Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman, and other aspects of counter and gay culture. Corey had come out to his parents at age 16, and they were much more supportive than El-Etreby’s parents. Through Corey and his family, El-Etreby experiences a number of firsts: drinking alcohol, firing a gun and using drugs. The two men also connect on an intellectual level, discussing philosophy, literature, and religion.
Despite the seriousness of the topic — coming to terms with himself as a gay Arab Muslim — El-Etreby mines plenty of humor from his journey, both in his writing and his performance. But the vocal and physical gambits he employs when shifting between different characters (especially his cat/therapist Mimi) could be more distinctive. These transitions might have been clarified and finessed by director Michael McClain, who also allows El-Etreby to undertake too many clumsy costume changes that disrupt the rhythm of the storytelling.
Despite these rough edges (including a number of line flubs, possibly due to nerves), El-Etreby’s story about learning to love himself remains an important one, all the more so because it evolves in a cultural context that’s seen on stage far too infrequently.