Staging Muslims: Identity Angst In American Theater

Mar 15, 2018

In the great cultural 'awokening' that has followed the rise of Donald Trump, the stories of Muslim-Americans wrestling with questions of selfhood, belonging, and bigotry have seen their own flowering. In film, television, comic books and memoir, there has been an ascendant generation of Muslim artists claiming their space in the representation conversation. For the second and third-generation of hyphenated artists making this work, it's an unapologetic reclamation of their narrative from terrorist headlines. One of the more rich and surprising developments in this wave is the emergence of Muslim-American theater.

The medium rewards combustible characters that clash and chafe against others on stage, igniting the dramatic sparks that win accolades. It's a fitting form for the precarious Muslim-American condition since 9/11, giving a new generation of playwrights the landscape of terrorism, profiling and suspicion to craft their high-octane drama.

"I think theater at its best gives ideas flesh and blood," Ayad Akhtar told me in a conversation for NPR. He's one of the most celebrated of these new voices, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his debut play about a self-hating Muslim-American called Disgraced. "It can animate dialectic between points of view. It's not mediated by screens and it has an ear to the ground," he says.

Other rising Muslim-American playwrights include Wajahat Ali, who premiered The Domestic Crusaders on the eighth anniversary of 9/11 at New York City's Nuyorican Poets Café, and Hammaad Chaudry, whose play, An Ordinary Muslim, has just opened at the New York Theatre Workshop.

If there's one thread these new works share, it's their effort to counter flattened ideas of the 'Muslim' by presenting individual lives in all their complicated iterations. By inviting audiences into the homes, private spaces and inner demons of Western Muslims, they're advancing representation on stage and adding to the canon of hyphenated American theater.

An Ordinary Muslim began as Chaudry's graduate thesis, and then evolved into a sprawling production under the guidance of the acclaimed American playwright Tony Kushner. The new piece wrestles with what it means to be an assimilated, "ordinary" Muslim. As Chaudry tells me, " ... the larger question of the title is that there is no such thing as an ordinary Muslim. You are seeing seven different Muslims who embody different kinds of Islam."

Chaudry's play was inspired by his childhood in Scotland and his formative educational and professional years in London and New York. The piece centers on a second-generation British Muslim man named Azeem Bhatti. To his co-workers, Azeem is an integrated 'ordinary' Muslim who occasionally joins for rounds at the pub. But in private, he's struggling with how much of his faith to embrace as Britain's Islamophobia weighs on his career and his family life.

His father's history of physical abuse against his mother resurfaces as the play opens. At the same time, Azeem's own wife has decided to wear the hijab against his wishes. In the backdrop, a young preacher at the neighborhood mosque is recruiting new congregants and confronts Azeem to be a more 'visible' and less 'insecure' Muslim. As Azeem's character unravels amid these pressures – both private and public – he lashes out at one of his white co-workers. "I don't want to be tolerated, I want to be respected," he screams. It's a resonant and powerful line that encapsulates the struggle for dignity facing Western Muslims.

Despite its timely message, the play was conceived long before the campaign and election of President Trump brought the question of 'Muslim identity' and 'migration' to its boiling point. Hammaad Chaudry tells me the play is less about the current climate than it is about the more insidious Islamophobia reflected across popular culture since 9/11.

Chaudry adds that such a large ensemble production is also his way of creating roles for fellow artists of color: "Representation is very important to me. In theater, you're dealing with a very small pool. Having said that, we've really made a commitment to have South Asian actors, but also actors that could be right for the role. It took three years and that gives you insight about the challenges you face."

The market reality of the mainstream New York stage imposes its own kind of limitations. At the performance of An Ordinary Muslim that I attended, the audience was older, affluent and mostly white. Each audience member was handed a reference guide to some of the unfamiliar 'Islamic' terms. At the conclusion of the play, a mediator came to the front of the theater and invited the audience to stay for a conversation about the themes of the piece – a safe space to broadcast our reservations and observations.

I stayed behind with some of the older couples and one man immediately raised his voice. "When Azeem has everything, why is he so unhappy and so ungrateful?" he complained. The revelation that a seemingly assimilated British Muslim could harbor such confusion had left several of the viewers equally confused. The mediator nodded and added that while she couldn't answer for the playwright or the cast, we should all consider the critique.

As I left the well-intentioned Q&A, I thought about the inherently didactic responsibly thrust upon the play in this political climate. Across the curatorial and critical coverage of works like Chaudry's, there is an earnest frame placed around art by and about Muslims.

It seems to suggest that "these works are good for you" in the way that hearty greens can be in an age of fast food. For artists like Chaudry, that framing poses its own restrictions by foregrounding their political value over their creative achievements or limitations.

An Ordinary Muslim is an elegant and intelligent contribution to an emerging body of art about the fraught Western Muslim condition.

Unfortunately, the same political forces and market opportunities that have propelled the piece to the stage may have muddled its message. The play is far too long and its characters' varying conflicts do not reach their own conclusions.

As The New York Times' theatre critic Jesse Green said, a tighter focus and a less ambitious effort to include all manner of private and public pressures could serve to sharpen the writer's thesis.

The play argues that while Muslims are misunderstood, they also deserve the space to better understand and become themselves. Like his accompanying generation of artists, Chaudry's career is only in its first act. Hopefully there are more sparks – and fewer mediators – yet to come.

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