Middle Eastern American Theater Artists Pen Letter Addressing THE PROFANE, Inclusion; Playwrights Horizons Responds!
Difficult, but welcome discussions about race and representation continue to spread through the theatre landscape.
Yesterday, a group of Middle Eastern and Muslim theater artists from Noor Theatre and elsewhere released a letter expressing concern about Playwrights Horizons' current production of Zayd Dohrn's THE PROFANE and what they see as a lack of representation on the "lead creative or producing team" of the show, which deals directly with their community.
Read the full letter below:
As a community of Middle Eastern American theater artists of varying races, cultural backgrounds, religions, sexual and gender identities, worldviews and artistic aesthetics, we believe the entire theater industry has a responsibility to create a more equitable and inclusive structure for presenting marginalized voices.
Playwrights Horizons is currently producing Zayd Dohrn's The Profane, a play that follows two Muslim, presumably Middle Eastern American families. We are deeply concerned by the lack of representation on the lead creative or producing team from the communities being portrayed on stage. Members of the Middle Eastern American theater community have raised this concern, along with issues about cultural representation in the play itself, in direct conversations with the artistic staff at Playwrights Horizons. These ongoing exchanges have been open and constructive, but there is much work to be done.
In the March 30, 2017 New York Times interview by Alexis Soloski entitled "Faith and Identity Clash in The Profane: An Actor's Roundtable," the writer interviews the cast of the show - all actors of varying Middle Eastern identity. The talented cast was asked a number of questions ranging from their thoughts on the election, to how Middle Easterners and Muslims are portrayed in media and entertainment. One question in particular stood out as problematic:
"Was it a problem for you that The Profane was written by a white playwright and has a white director?"
It is indeed a valid question; however, Ms. Soloski ought to have directed her inquiry to the producing organization, Playwrights Horizons, who made the contentious hiring choices - not the actors. The actors in the cast are our colleagues and friends and we support them endeavoring to speak for these larger power structures, as many of us have done in the past. However, actors are employees, and their ability to speak freely in these situations is complicated by that reality. They should not be expected to defend the work, only to interpret it. They do not exist to answer for those in power.
We also ask: Why, when there are so many gifted Middle Eastern and/or Muslim playwrights and directors, are there still no decision makers of Middle Eastern descent or Muslim faith involved in a production about Muslims?
As Middle Eastern American artists, we are familiar with our stories being filtered through a predominantly white gaze. We take issue with producing organizations whose choices perpetuate the notion that we are a voiceless, powerless group, incapable of representing ourselves. Such a notion is supported by the continuation of Islamophobia and white privilege, and the Orientalist idea that our stories, experiences, fantasies, and myths need to be expressed for us. This keeps us out of the conversation and out of the full process of creation, and relegates us to passive subjects that must be interpreted, dissected, exoticized and so forth.
While prompted by recent events, this letter is a response to many years of watching our stories be misrepresented, censored, appropriated, and exploited. Marginalized groups and people of color across the country continue to face these issues. As we bring to light our particular challenges as Middle Eastern and Muslim artists in the U.S., we also recognize our allied communities in this intersectional struggle for equity and representation.
Playwrights Horizons, New York City theater community, regional theaters across the United States, we urge you to:
1. Invite Middle Eastern and/or Muslim people to be in decision-making positions, whether on your permanent artistic staff and/or as lead artists who author and create the work. Also consider other roles where this may be possible, such as dramaturgs, designers, and stage managers. The burden of representation should not rest on the shoulders of actors alone, but on a full and diverse team of artists.
2. Choose to produce plays by a Middle Eastern and/or Muslim playwright. Offer those playwrights commissions and opportunities for their work to be further developed within your organization.
3. When choosing a play that explores Middle Eastern and/or Muslim communities, consider one that: challenges Islamophobia or dangerous Middle Eastern stereotypes; understands the contexts of colonialism and Orientalism; and explores different angles of history or politics. As you read plays, maintain an awareness of your own assumptions and of the limits of your knowledge. Ask yourself whether the piece relies on stereotypes and if its structure or premise would work if transposed onto other identity groups with which you may have more familiarity.
This is an urgent call to diversify the full-time production staff of mainstream theater.
The overwhelmingly monolithic power structure is the root cause of the imbalance we see. People of color are shut out of important discussions around season selection, authorship, and authenticity. The cyclical nature is troubling: When gatekeepers are largely similar in heritage and cultural experience, they often share the same blind spot, and we've seen much troubling content fall through that hole onto our stages. Content that, often unintentionally, reinforces unhelpful narratives. That work is then seen by audiences who share similar blind spots, and reviewed by critics through the same narrow lens. The circle is thus complete.
Given the power of narrative and story to impact our nation's decisions around immigration, the refugee crisis, and foreign military intervention, we believe the stakes are too high for us to allow this to go on unchecked.
This letter is our call for a public discussion to be held around these issues.
You may sign in solidarity here: http://bit.ly/2oCkWO5
Lameece Issaq, Founding Artistic Director, Noor Theatre
Leila Buck, Playwright, Actor, Intercultural Educator and Facilitator
Maha Chehlaoui, Founder, Pass the Mic Media; Founder, Noor Theatre
Thomas Simsarian Dolan, PhD Candidate, American Studies, George Washington University
Kareem Fahmy, Director, Playwright
Noelle Ghoussaini, Director, Playwright, Educator
Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director, Silk Road Rising
Ismail Khalidi, Playwright
Mona Mansour, Playwright
Pirronne Yousefzadeh, Director, Writer, and Educator
Playwrights Horizons has responded today with a call for public discussion and further collaboration. Their statement follows:
We're grateful to Lameece Issaq and the co-authors of this letter for the consistently productive, open-hearted conversations about representation that we've had with them over the course of the past few months surrounding our production of The Profane; they have continued to add invaluable insight to our active internal reflections.
Playwrights Horizons has been a longtime supporter of Zayd Dohrn's writing, throughout his extensive, wide-ranging body of work, and of his longtime collaboration with director Kip Fagan. The Profane is a deft reversal of a troubling, clichéd American narrative: again and again, we see stories that depict closed-mindedness in religious communities in America, perpetuating prejudices and divisions between the secular and the devout. Challenging narrative expectations, Dohrn's play is a heartfelt and personal appeal for empathy and greater understanding: so urgent and relevant in this cultural moment. We're honored to have the work of this entire creative team - a designation which to our minds and in our practices includes its extraordinary ensemble - on our stage.
We've fully absorbed and are deeply engaged with the questions and issues that have been raised with us in our personal conversations with members of the Middle Eastern American theater community and in this open letter. While we feel this production doesn't belie our ongoing pursuit of inclusion, as evidenced by our programming in both this and recent seasons, we gratefully accept the call for explicit action toward greater representation on our stages as well as in our offices. We've already taken steps in this direction - including a commissioning program for Middle Eastern and Arab American Playwrights and an institution-wide expansion of efforts toward equity - and future programming will reflect this commitment.
In private conversations with the authors of this letter, Playwrights Horizons has eagerly offered our physical and staff resources to support the call for a public discussion around these issues, and we renew this offer publicly here. We hope to be an audience and contributor to this conversation, which we'd be happy to see happen here in our building.
We look forward to continuing our efforts toward achieving equity and representation in alignment and in tandem with the community of Middle Eastern American theater artists and audiences, and with allied communities of all races, religions, sexual and gender identities and cultural backgrounds.
Playwrights Horizons' world premiere production of The Profane, a new play by Zayd Dohrn (Outside People, Reborning), directed by Kip Fagan (Grand Concourse at Playwrights, Exit Strategy, The Revisionist, Asuncion), is currently playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street) through Sunday, May 7.
The cast of The Profane features Tala Ashe (Troilus and Cressida, The Who & the What, Urge for Going), Francis Benhamou (I Call My Brothers, Invasion!, "Inside Amy Schumer"), Ramsey Faragallah (The School for Scandal, Betrayed, "Homeland"), Ali Reza Farahnakian (Homebody/Kabul, "Delocated," "30 Rock"), Lanna Joffrey (Richard III: Born with Teeth, Sad and Merry Sadness, Mark Rylance's Sonnet Walks), Heather Raffo (Nine Parts of Desire, Palace of the End, Food and Fadwa) and Babak Tafti (Small Mouth Sounds, North Pool, "Orange Is the New Black").
Safe in the liberal fortress of Manhattan, Raif Almedin (Mr. Farahnakian) is a first-generation immigrant who prides himself on his modern, enlightened views. But when his daughter (Ms. Ashe) falls for the son (Mr. Tafti) of a conservative Muslim family in White Plains, he discovers the threshold of his tolerance. In Zayd Dohrn's sharp and timely tale, two families are forced to confront each other's religious beliefs and cultural traditions, and to face their own deep-seated prejudice.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus