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Passing and Understanding

“Should only Muslims be able to play Muslims?”

This was a question we were asked to answer in rehearsal the other night.

Some context. We’re doing a play about the Trojans and the Greeks. The concept added on top of it? The Americans vs. “Middle Eastern people.” That’s as specific an answer as we ever got. The two actors cast to play the “Middle Eastern people” were both white men. It was touchy from the get-go. We all tried to avoid it and think of ways to make it ok.

And then the director asked the two white guys playing “Middle Eastern people” to do “Middle Eastern” accents. And that was the last straw.

So we had a big group discussion and we voiced all of our concerns and it wasn’t going well at first and then it shifted and suddenly we changed from “Middle Eastern” to Russia and all was well.

But still this question stuck with me. Our director asked us, “Can only Muslim people play Muslim characters?” My mom asks me this all the time- she’s usually just trying to be difficult but this question seems to be indicative of a different kind of thinking.

And then we read Really by Jackie Sibblies Drury and the character description solved it all for me. The character of Girlfriend is described as “black or brown. She should be able to relate to being not white or ever passing as white or wanting to be white.” And this specific description is what the answer is to why that question was bothering me. It’s not that you can’t play a thing if you’re not that things, it’s that you can’t play a thing if there’s no part of you that can relate to the experience of the person you’re playing. The two white boys have no experience with situations that would relate to those of a Muslim person in our modern world. They do not walk through the world with the judgements of other people based on their skin color. They do not live in a country with a government that is systematically trying to turn the public against them. So while they may be able to relate to other things in the life of a Muslim person, there are just too many hurdles to jump through.

Yes, people can play people. But if you cannot relate, you cannot hope to portray them with dignity and honesty. And everyone, no matter what, deserves at least that.

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