'Cleopatra Boy' at Detroit's Andy examines historical manipulation

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News
"Cleopatra Boy," here with Chris Jakob and Aja Salakastar Dier, examines how multiple authors manipulated the story of the Egyptian queen.

Sherrine Azab and Jake Hooker have been laboring in the trenches of experimental theater for 20 years. They call themselves "lifers."

Seven years ago, the pair decided to give New York City the heave-ho, and moved to Detroit to establish their ensemble company, A Host of People. 

Host's current production, "Cleopatra Boy," just opened at Andy, the community art space on Fenkell in Detroit, and runs through Sept. 28. 

Azab and Hooker, 39 and 43 respectively, specialize in edgy, non-linear ensemble work in which all hands on deck participate in the creative process. 

"We take a lot of inspiration from the people we work with," said Hooker, "many of whom are born-and-bred Detroiters, unlike us." (Azab is from Milwaukee and Hooker from Denver. The two met in college in Seattle.)

Often as not, the result is a hybrid -- some parts of any given production will feel like traditional theater, while others veer towards spoken word, dance, and performance art. 

"Adventurous and elegant" is how Detroit Public Theatre's Sarah Clare Corporandy characterizes their work. 

"It really is all over the place," Hooker said. "We're kind of the weirdos of the theater community," added Azab. 

That said, the pair emphasize that they try very hard to bring a warmth and approachability to avant-garde theater, with a heavy emphasis on dazzling visual design, as with their 2018 production "Neither There, Nor Here." 

"We've just done two performances of 'Cleopatra Boy,'" Azab said, "and we've had people say they thought it was going to be so artsy they wouldn't understand it -- but that they totally got it." 

"Cleopatra Boy," which they describe as a "theatrical thought experiment," examines the layered ways in which white male writers -- Plutarch, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed the 1963 film with Elizabeth Taylor -- have redefined and exploited the tale of the Egyptian monarch for their own purposes. 

Lost in the shuffle, argues Azab, who's half Egyptian, is the real, historical Cleopatra. 

"The question is who gets to tell whose story, and how it keeps changing over time," Azab said.

"This is especially the case with women, and non-white women, whose stories are often manipulated. In the case of Cleopatra," she added, "the Romans very clearly erased her legacy and rewrote it to their own ends."

"Cleopatra Boy," by the way, takes its name from a line in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." The Egyptian queen speculates on the play the Romans will likely stage once she's dead, with their traditional all-male casts, in which "some squeaking Cleopatra boy" will play her not as a great monarch, but a common whore. 

"We were going to call our play 'Some Squeaking Cleopatra Boy,'" said Hooker, adding sensibly, "but it confused people." 

The two have already mapped out a forthcoming sequel, "Death of Cleopatra," which will adapt a 1930s Egyptian play by Ahmed Shawqi. Plans are in the works for a premiere at Dearborn's Arab American National Museum next year. 

And in coming months, more of the country will be able to catch "Cleopatra Boy." Hooker and Azab have secured funding from the New England Foundation for the Arts to underwrite a national tour after it closes in Detroit. 


(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Cleopatra Boy'

Through Sept. 28

Andy, 3000 Fenkell, Detroit 

8 p.m. Sept. 19-21, Sept. 24, & Sept. 26-28 

Tickets: $15 - adult, $5 teens Sept. 19-21; Pay what you want - Sept. 24; $20 - adult, $5 - teens Sept. 26-28

(313) 649-7632