When actor/musician Ahmed Moneka arrived in Ontario in September of 2015, he only planned to stay for 10 days. Very successful in theater and film in his home country of Iraq, Moneka was visiting Canada during the Toronto International Film Festival for a screening of a film about two gay men living in Baghdad, called “The Society.”
He has never gone back. Moneka received threats after the film was screened, due to its LGBTQ content, and he was advised to not return to Iraq. He has been living as an exile ever since. He is now growing into a force to be reckoned with in Toronto as a performer and musician.
A new production, “King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild,” directed by St. Paul-based Seth Bockley, weaves together Moneka’s story with that of the ancient epic poem, “Gilgamesh.” In case your high school skipped that one, the Mesopotamian epic hails from late 2nd millennium BC about the part-deity Gilgamesh and his adversary-turned-best friend Enkidu.
Bockley, Moneka, and Toronto-based actor-writer Jesse Lavercombe, who plays Enkidu, have been developing the work for about four years, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the performing arts world right as they were planning a tour of the show. They’ll be showing the piece, which features Moneka’s Arabic-maqam jazz band, Moneka Arabic Jazz, at the Jungle Theater starting New Year’s Eve. In January, the work will travel to the Under the Radar Festival in New York and a two-week run at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. It will head back to Toronto later in 2023 where it will perform at the Tria Theater.
Here’s a recent conversation with Moneka, Bockley and Lavercombe conducted over the phone after a recent rehearsal about putting the show together. The interview has beed edited for length and clarity.
Sheila Regan: The pandemic has turned this project into a much longer development process than originally planned. How has that shaped and influenced the work, and in what ways has the piece evolved?
Seth Bockley: It’s so fun and funny to have these guys be playing a version of themselves. When we first wrote the show together, we wrote a scene that involves the birth of Ahmed’s daughter, and when we first performed the play in workshops, it was speculative — it was in the future. Now his daughter is three years old. She’s talking and running around. It’s a very strange and beautiful thing to have this snapshot in time of these guys’ lives — a particular moment when they met. As an outsider, it’s really beautiful to see them re-inhabit this moment in their own history and activate it again. It’s become history — there’s this slight quality of distance now, which I actually think is really beautiful, and allows them to actually craft it even more.
Jesse Lavercombe: Also, Ahmed has become in the years here in Toronto really a legendary frontman of multiple bands, and has kind of become the leader of the world music scene. His own real ascent to stardom he’s finding in this city is really exciting. In the original version, he and I were running around in this very gritty way, two men playing instruments and acting and running back and forth. Now we have a five-piece Arabic jazz band that’s on tour with us, and they’re all absolutely just world class players. That’s been the biggest shift in the show. It is so much larger and more epic and more theatrical, and we’ve found a true hybrid of a very complicated woven play, but also a concert where you get to see a band really do their thing.
Seth Bockley: I remember when we first started talking about this project, Ahmed would say, ‘How could I play King Gilgamesh? How could I carry myself like a King like that?’ And now, you carry yourself differently because you’re a father now. I actually see it in your body and in your intention — how you own authority, and power in a new way.
Ahmed Moneka: Even my English is much different. I learned English six years ago. The level of my English now — there are still a lot of words I don’t know how to pronounce, but there’s comfort in terms of making art in English. And that was a huge barrier for me. Now it feels not really natural, but it’s possible.
Sheila Regan: How has the band’s role evolved as part of this project?
Seth Bockley: The band is casting a spell, and they are taking us into a world. The band is really cinematic at times. They are the sound of the ancient world. They provide sound effects — like the sound of waves, they are the sound of doors closing, they’re also the sound of ancient haunted underworld gods. They also support Ahmed’s vocals in a really profound way.
Jesse Lavercombe: What’s been fun too with the band is that for most of them this is their first time ever working in theater. And so we’ve really gotten to build our own language with them throughout this process. At times that’s been challenging, but then oftentimes those challenges have resulted in really beautiful discoveries.
Ahmed Moneka: The genres that we play during the show — there’s Arabic music, there’s African music, there’s North American music, classical music. The scoring of the play is really rich and so diverse as well. And that is really adding a nice layer, with everyone coming from different parts of the world.
Jesse Lavercombe: We’re excited to kind of showcase the world music scene in Toronto right now. Talking to all these players who tour the world and then come back here — all of them are saying Toronto is the only real place right now where you can show up from anywhere in the world, and these musicians are all learning to incorporate their music in with each other.
Sheila Regan: Do you guys feel like you’ve gotten closer as a collaborative group?
Seth Bockley: It’s been amazing to have a long term collaboration. So often in theater, we just do a show and it’s like, at most, a couple months, or maybe a year, if you’re developing a new play, and then you produce it. This is a profound collaboration. The story of friendship that is depicted in the play is also real about the three of us. We’re embedded in each other’s lives in really deep ways. Coming to Toronto for Ahmed’s 30th birthday last year, it was incredible to see his family who had just arrived from Turkey shortly before. As a friend and as a collaborator, getting to actually witness the personal growth, and be part of each other’s stories.
Ahmed Moneka: We know how to have good time in real life and also be connected to each other’s families — that makes a huge difference in terms of trust, and how we could work with each other. We enjoy working together. And it’s so natural.
“King Gilgamesh & the Man of the Wild” runs Saturday, Dec. 31, through Sunday, Jan. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Jungle (pay as you are model, starting at $10 with suggested price of $45). More information here.