05/16/2014 07:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Arab Love Arab Freedom: One Woman Muses


Is it possible that art is more than personal experience? If you recognize that your voice contains all the voices that came before you, then you will realize that when you speak you do not speak alone. All the people who made your presence possible on earth speak with you. When you begin to... explore this, you will realize how immense that voice really is. - Anne Bogart

Lisa Kotecki is busy playing traffic cop to all the voices that came before her, and on May 22nd, for one night only, audiences at Stage Werx in San Francisco will find her navigating the sociocultural gridlock of her Arab American heritage in a candid, funny and occasionally provocative one-woman show.

Growing up in Texas - the daughter of a Syrian woman who had come to America in her late 20's, speaking no English, but determined to make a new life for herself - Kotecki mostly flew under the radar, air cover provided by her Polish American father's last name. She is routinely mistaken for Hispanic, and speaks Spanish fluently, whereas her Arabic is still rudimentary.

"My mother did not force her culture upon us," notes Kotecki, "We didn't live in an ethnic bubble. People would only know of my heritage when I decided to tell them." Her visits to her mother's homeland were "magical... before it became the warzone it is now... I imagined that this was how adopted kids feel when meeting their birth parents for the first time."

Of course, this was the pre-9/11, pre-Axis of Evil time period. "I was in college when 9/11 happened, and that's when my relationship to what it meant to be from that part of the world shifted. Earthquake-shifted. I was terrified for my family here in the U.S., who lived in a predominantly Arab community."

She recalls the escalation of anti-Arab sentiment and the hate crimes. "I went from feeling completely integrated and one with my environment, to feeling more and more separate as an American and Arab. It felt as if the two were no longer allowed to be together; you were one or the other. But I felt like I was both. I am both. Then again, the struggle was very different for those of my relatives in America who carry a name that makes it obvious where they came from."

She would go on to study Middle Eastern history in college, and imbibe as much of that complex civilization as she could from her perch among that growing tribe of 'Third Culture Kids' - whose signature traits, sociologists report, are resilience, insecurity, and a propensity to deal with problems by leaving town.

Kotecki left town when California beckoned. Though true to the adage, she confesses with a grin: "You can take a girl out of Texas, but you can never take Texas out of the girl."

She now resides in the creative ferment that is Oakland. She has built a niche for herself, crafting new media strategies to help entrepreneurs and small businesses burnish their brands. And when not busy taming the internet, she pours her heart into art. "I've always been somewhat of an art slut," she claims. She started playing piano at 8, took up bellydance at 18, and acting at 28. The interest in bellydance stemmed, not surprisingly, from a thirst to learn more about her heritage. And yet bellydance is considered a very low art form in most parts of the Middle East, "not that far removed from prostitution," observes Kotecki. The art of fusion bellydance, which seems a poetic fit for a mixed-race dancer, became her obsession, and she traveled and performed and found a sisterhood of sorts in the bellydance community.

Don't wait until you know who you are to get started. - Austin Kleon

Inspired by the many performers in the Bay Area who are reshaping traditional art forms, layering the personal and the political, and exploring issues of identity through art, Kotecki started to chronicle her personal skirmishes with culture and tradition. Her voice by turns comic, bewildered, humiliated, and triumphant, these fragments coalesced into a one-woman show, under the experienced eye of writer-director Martha Rynberg.

In Arab Love Arab Freedom, Kotecki speaks with great affection of the strong women in her life - especially her mother and grandmother, both educated, independent and accomplished, even as she points out the widening chasm between their worlds and hers. She tries to reconcile the "rules" and expectations for women who straddle borders as she does, in the post 9/11 world. She embraces feminism, unsure if feminism will embrace her back. She stumbles in and out of love, each relationship raising more questions than it answers. She makes some choices that she worries will outrage her mother.

Memoir in America is an atrocity arms race. - Calvin Trillin

On stage, Kotecki is breezy and graceful, with a hint of the sinuosity of a bellydancer, even in jeans and a T-shirt. Her face is luminous, her wide-eyed candour engaging. There is a vulnerability and a steeliness to her presence - part warrior, part sylph. She is still refining her piece, deciding which elements of her life to reveal at this time, deciding whether she will dance for us. Expect sass, sorrow, and a little Texas swagger.

Creativity is subtraction. It's often what an artist chooses to leave out that makes the art interesting. - Austin Kleon

Catch Lisa Kotecki live in Arab Love Arab Freedom on Thursday May 22nd, 7 pm, at Stage Werx at 446 Valencia St., San Francisco.