Fresh Voices: An interview with playwright James Elazzi

November 27, 2019

Words by Elissa Blake from Audrey Journal

Western Sydney writer James Elazzi’s unflinching comedy Lady Tabouli has its World Premiere in the Sydney Festival. For any playwright, that’s a big deal. For Elazzi, it’s also an opportunity to showcase Australian stories of a kind that don’t often get the recognition and space they deserve.

James, you proudly identify as a Western Sydney writer. What does that background add to your toolkit?

James Elazzi: Western Sydney is a melting pot of different cultures, heroic stories of survival in all facets of human resilience. Being a writer in Western Sydney allows me to understand that beneath the surface, everyone has a compelling story. I love to write true, raw and brave stories, deriving from family, to what my views of the community are.

What part does your heritage play in the kinds of subjects you like to tackle?

My first trip to Lebanon was only a few years ago. It really cemented the idea of being stuck between two cultures and not really belonging to either. I am seen as a Lebanese man here in Australia – where I was born – and I’m seen as a foreigner in Lebanon, where my family come from. I needed to adapt and find a balance, essentially coming to understand that the only thing that I really find important in all this is family. I am compelled to write plays about hardship and triumph, about hope and survival and about being Lebanese and Australian. I want to give these personal stories a voice. If they aren’t told by us, they are essentially forgotten.

So tell us a little about Lady Tabouli. It’s a comedy, right?

Lady Tabouli centres on two major plots: the break down of family relationships, and getting to the church on time for a Christening. Dana and her daughter are in a swirl of frustration over the lack of time, Danny’s uncle Mark tries to calm the situation and Danny is just about to drop a massive bombshell. And we can’t forget about Aunty Fatima in Lebanon!

Is it specifically a Lebanese family story?

Elements of it are personal and family because that’s my heritage, but the core of the story is universal. I write from a personal perspective but I’m sure everyone who sees the play will relate to it in some way.

What is meaningful for you personally in the story?

I wrote the play with three objectives in mind: firstly, to get to the core of why we react and say the things we say under pressure; secondly, to explore themes that have been traditionally taboo or unspoken, and lastly, I wanted to write a comedy, to make people laugh while maintaining the integrity of the story.

What kind of comedy is it?

I see it as a marriage of comedy and seriousness. It’s filled with love over expectations.

Why is it important that stories like Lady Tabouli are told? And what kind of stories would you like to see more of?

It’s essential to see stories like this represented on stage. I’ve often felt that my community and my perspective have been alienated from the main stages and screens. I write to open up a canister of tradition and heritage and then tip it over and start again. Australia is a large melting pot of cultures, yet they aren’t represented (but), I don’t just want to see any diverse stories on stage, I want to see well written, clever, witty writing.

What are you hoping the audience will gain from it? A great night out? Something to think about? A laugh?

All three are absolutely ideal. I can’t imagine seeing Lady Tabouli and not feeling a slap on the face or a punch in the gut.


Lady Tabouli plays the Riverside Theatres, January 9–18, part of the National Theatre of Parramatta True West season of Sydney Festival 2020.