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A Response to the Huntington’s THE WHO AND THE WHAT

Walking into the Calderwood Pavilion for a Sunday matinee I was unsurprised by the audience make-up, mostly older and white, with about six to seven people my age and about twenty people of color, including a Muslim Sudanese couple, and two parties of Muslim Pakistanis, who introduced themselves as such when they spoke during the post-show conversation.

As I walked into the space I was struck by the set: three “golden” (stage gold), formidable walls encompassing the stage, decorated with simple geometric shapes, such as squares and diamonds. It invoked the presence of a nondescript mosque, introducing the presence of Islam and maybe even an image one would find in Pakistan, the country from which the patriarch and matriarch of the play’s family emigrated. I am not a fan of the gold whatsoever because, as mosques go, it’s pretty rare to find one bathed in gold; the use of intricate geometric designs and colors such as blues, cerulean, orange, green, and maroon is more widely seen. To me, the gold recalls an archaic and orientalist perspective of the Islamic tradition – an essentialization that makes me deeply uncomfortable. With this said, however, I know that design choices are made with technical elements in mind, especially lighting, so I’d be curious to learn about the creative team’s conversations that lead to this choice. One aspect to the walls I found intriguing was a pink hue (or red, depending on the lighting) that seemed to emerge from under the gold, creating a kind of palimpsest. The pink could mean many things, but one interpretation is that it is a symbol for Zarina, as a woman (hence the pink perhaps?), challenging the faith in her quest to understanding the Prophet; or perhaps the pink symbolizes the truths, tensions, and/or ambiguities that lie under the “golden” simple narrative that religious traditions paint over their complexities.

Another technical element that intrigued me was Saraswathi Jones’s original music. The show started with a South Asian sound then, suddenly, when the back golden wall sprung upward and broke open the space, there was rock n’ roll as the family’s kitchen rolled downstage. The world of the play sounded like a hybrid of South Asian instruments and American rock n’ roll, a perfect aural manifestation of the family’s Pakistani-American experience.

A struggle I clocked within myself as I watched The Who and the What was Zarina’s discussion of the origin of the veil in Islam. She described its origin as the sura (chapter) in the Qur’an that refers to the “screen.” I am in NO WAY an expert on this subject, and I am an outsider to the Islamic tradition, however, as I watched I thought of a class I was lucky enough to take at BU called “Qur’an.” In the class, we read the Qur’an and became acquainted with many ijtihad (interpretations by Islamic scholars) in conversation with surat (chapters) in the Qur’an. In this class, I was exposed to multiple understandings of the origin of the veil within the vast and diverse Islamic community, the “screen” sura being but one. During the post-show conversation, a Muslim audience member talked about her frustration with the singular interpretation and offered another understanding of the origin of the veil.

This opens A WHOLE OTHER conversation, based on the danger of a single story. I got caught in the idea that a story is responsible for exhibiting the multiple understandings of the community it is representing. BUT THIS IS NOT STORYTELLING; it’s a list of bullet points. I got caught in the embarrassingly reductive understanding of Akhtar’s play as an introduction to Muslim-American family life, or even an introduction to Islam, when it is actually a universal story about family love and love for a faith, as well as the tensions that arise from challenging a faith. (A version of) Islam is the backdrop, but THE FAMILY is its center, which is exactly what makes the story accessible to anyone.

Then my next question is: If one story cannot – and should not — speak for an entire community and/or tradition made up of many differences and complexities (going back to one of this semester’s themes of “diversity within diversity”), how about one single voice? Is this dangerous? While reading about Akhtar and listening to him speak in YouTube videos and more, I learned that his play Disgraced was the most produced play in America for the 2015-16 Season and three of his plays were produced on New York stages in the same year. He has — deservingly so — gained immense recognition in the theatre world, Disgraced winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and being nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. Akhtar has become the Muslim-American voice of today’s American theatre, and, yes, it’s a superb voice, but it is only one. It has overwhelmed equally worthy voices, such as Yussef El Guindi’s, Jamil Khoury’s, Nathalie Handal’s, and Layla Dowlatshahi’s, and more. (These playwrights’ works deal with the Muslim and/or Arab experience, terms that are not synonymous, of course, yet take on a similar color within American national discourse.) Why aren’t these playwrights getting equally produced???

Next personal action item: Look for a Kilroy-like collection of Muslim-American and Arab-American plays and/or playwrights. And if it’s not out there yet:

Start my own.

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About gbfontenele

Director and dramaturg in training. Free spirit and questioner from the beginning.

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