Ted Sod, Roundabout's Education Dramaturg, interviewed playwright Stephen Karam to discuss The Sons of the Prophet.
Ted Sod: Will you give us some background information on yourself? Where are you from? Where were you educated? When did you decide to become a playwright and why?
Stephen Karam: I grew up in Scranton, PA. I attended a public high school, then majored in English at Brown University. I never really decided to become a playwright, there was no turning point, per se. I never went to grad school to study playwriting, so part of me wonders...maybe I haven't decided yet? I discovered theater around middle school and have been drawn to it ever since.
What do you feel the play is about? What inspired you to write this play?
In a nutshell, Sons of the Prophet is a comedy about a guy coping with chronic pain. More generally (and amusingly), you could call it a comedy about human suffering. It explores the particularly messy portions of our lives-the times in which you find yourself coping with multiple life issues, and before any of them can be resolved - two more show up on your plate.
The play features many characters struggling with lingering pain, whether it's physical or emotional. Joseph's symptoms are unrelenting; Gloria worries her traumatic past will always loom over her life; Joseph and Charles will never get to speak to their parents again; Bill knows his health will never fully return - they're all at a stage where it's less about popping a pill and nipping their troubles in the bud, and more about starting the slow, complicated journey to coping. Figuring out the best way to move forward in the face of no easy answers.
Does the play have personal resonance for you and if so, how?
Even the towns featured in the play (all in Eastern Pennsylvania) are all hurting. Parts of Pennsylvania built their entire identity around industries (steel, coal, etc.) that are no longer there. It's a lot like Joseph's crisis-he built his entire identity around his athletic talent. Suddenly that's taken away. How will he define himself going forward?
All of my plays are deeply personal. But none of them are autobiographical. Still, the play has a list of yes-that's-kinda-true-facts.
- I grew up in Scranton, PA.
- I'm half-Lebanese. My grandfather and oldest aunt/uncle were born in Lebanon. My grandparents came over when they were in their 20s - my grandfather died speaking only broken English. He was a tailor. I was raised Maronite faith (Roman Catholicism with more incense and Arabic) and attended a Maronite church in West Scranton.
- I grew up down the block from the "real" Douaihy family ("Douaihy", like "Karam" is an extremely common last name in Lebanon). The Douaihys of Scranton had two daughters a few years older than me, we attended the same public high school. They were not only fellow Lebanese-Maronites...and Scrantonians...but also both gay. Yes, two sisters, both fabulous lesbians. Both inspired me a great deal.
- I ran cross country.
- I worked as an editorial assistant at Free Press, Simon & Schuster. Then as a legal assistant for 7 years.
- I've had my own medical struggles (like many) and even a spinal tap. But there will be no more details forthcoming as a) Sons of the Prophet is not a disease-of-the-week play and b) I do not want to publish my medical history online.
- Sudden family deaths have influenced the play quite a bit. Growing up, I lost three people (suddenly) with whom I was very close. Anyone who's lost people out of the blue knows how indescribable it is.
- I had a torrid affair with Anderson Cooper.
I did not have a torrid affair with Anderson. Nothing about it was torrid. No! Kidding. Though hopefully this will generate some web traffic (Gawker, call me, we'll get you free tix).
How did you research the world of the play? What kind of research did you have to do in order to write it?
Well life experience. I traveled all over Lebanon recently. It went north into the mountains and was able to pass through Zghorta (where my family was from), Ehden, Bcharre (Gibran's hometown). I'd been planning a trip in 2006 but the Beirut airport was bombed, so that scared me away for many years. Lebanon has its own share of chronic pain-for centuries it's taken hits from all sides. It's also a country that has resisted collapse, continually rebuilding and looking forward. The Lebanese people are incredibly inspiring. Along with their difficult history comes a strong resilience.