Review: Trans Refugee Drama 'Adam,' Based on Real Events, has Visceral Power

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday January 25, 2022

Yasmin Al-Khoudhairi and Adam Kashmiri in 'Adam'
Yasmin Al-Khoudhairi and Adam Kashmiri in 'Adam'  (Source:Tommy Ga-Ken Wa/National Theatre of Scotland)

"Adam," an hourlong play written by Frances Poet, stars Adam Kashmiri and is based on Kashmiri's experiences as a transgender man, first in his native Egypt — where he faces constant misgendering and dangerous anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment — and then as a refugee seeking asylum on Scotland. The hourlong film version of the play, directed by Cora Bissett and Louise Lockwood, is a production of the National Theatre of Scotland, and is available to stream Jan 28 — 30 via ArtsEmerson's "stage to screen" offerings.

"Adam" pushes buttons that not even the acclaimed documentary "Flee," also about an LGBTQ+ refugee from an Arabic country, put its finger on. In part, this is due to the subject matter — the subject of "Flee" left Afghanistan with his family due to political upheaval and ideological persecution, whereas Adam had to leave his native Alexandria because once his status as a trans man was discovered his physical safety, and his life, were in grave danger. The story is told, adroitly and with emotional force, through a mixture of flashbacks and present-day interactions with a mental health nurse (Stephen McCole) who's come to check on Adam — who, at that point, has been living in isolation for 403 days (a tally that grows to 600 as his struggle continues).

In the present day, Adam is trying to connect with the nurse, but has forgotten some of his social skills. He's soon begging the nurse for help in securing testosterone in a bid to begin his physical transition, but, unable to obtain any help, he's driven to contemplates a self-mastectomy as a way of addressing the way his body is at odds with his own gender perception, and to prove to a skeptical, and sometimes callous, system (personified by an asylum claim official played by Neshla Caplan) the truth of what he's telling them: That he is a man trapped in the body of a woman. He can't prove anything to the satisfaction of his bureaucratic interrogator and, making things worse, he can't proceed with his hormone therapy until he gains asylum... but he can't secure asylum until he convinces the powers that be that he's telling the truth about his own inner experience of his gender.

Yasmin Al-Khoudhairi and Adam Kashmiri in 'Adam'
Yasmin Al-Khoudhairi and Adam Kashmiri in 'Adam'  (Source: Tommy Ga-Ken Wa/National Theatre of Scotland)

The film explains Adam's point with the simply and effective device of allowing us to see Adam as he sees himself, except for key moments when we see him as others do — namely, as a young woman (played by Yasmin Al-Khoudhairi). His parents Mayam (Myriam Acharki) and Malak (Haqi Ali) are two such people, as is Amira (Rehanna MacDonald), a co-worker who, in flashback, kisses Adam passionately, thinking he, like her, is a lesbian. Adam attempts to explain, but Amira mistakenly believes him to be saying he's a woman who wants to live like a man, with the freedoms that entails. Amira wants that for herself: "Who wouldn't want to be a boy when they have it so good?" she asks, in a line that's bitterly rich with irony.

Another of the play's many viscerally powerful moments takes place soon after, when the manager of the store where Adam and Amira work (played by Hamish Wyllie) sees them kissing and watches, a nasty smile on his face — a smile, Amira whispers in terror, of pleasure at the power the manager will now have over them. Chillingly, the manager makes Adam an offer: He can "help" Adam himself, or he can turn Adam over to the police, in which case "a gang of four or five policemen" will step in to "cure" him. "Who do you think will be more gentle?" the manager asks.

Not much about this play is gentle, in fact, but everything about it speaks to the needless pain and terror transgender people are subjected to in repressive places around the world — which, sadly, includes a number of American states. The pay's universality and unflinching honesty give it a harrowing power, but also a deeply affecting poignance that's amplified, and given voice anew, by a choir of 140 transgender and non-binary singers from around the world. (They recorded their individual parts from home, but the mix is flawless and you'd never know this was a virtual choir if the information wasn't provided.)

In a bravura sequence, we see Adam as both a man and a woman, as he wrestles with himself in the solitude of his flat. His doubts, terrors, and sense of displacement — more intimately physical than mere geographical and cultural dislocation — come to heart-rending life as Adam's internal clashes grow more pronounced and his desperation grows. At last — at long last — there's resolution, and wholeness, but it's a shattering journey to get there.

A haunting work, "Adam" holds out hope for healing and happiness. It's a story that needs to be told — now more than ever.

"Adam" streams Jan, 28 — 30. For more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.