The Arab-American Theatre: Still a Struggle to be Seen

By 
Roaa Ali
On the left, a scene from Noor Theater’s “Food and Fadwa,” and on the right, the Noor Theater founders (from left to right) Lameece Issaq, Maha Chehlaoui and Nancy Vitale, photographed by Ruth Fremson of The New York Times.


Amidst the current resurgence of anti-Arab and Muslim sentiments in American conservative media outlets, the need for active Arab-American artistic voices has never been more urgent. The present political and social environment remains reminiscent of post 9/11 America, where many Arab Americans experienced an endangered sense of identity. Historical challenges like 9/11 have represented, however, a catalyst for more activist and artistic Arab- American ventures. Arab-American theatre has seen a new wave of fruitful and concentrated artistic expression as a direct response to 9/11, and its repercussions on the Arab-American community. Today’s political milieu similarly invokes powerful Arab- American voices. In service of these artistic ventures, it becomes imperative to survey past experiences and struggles of Arab- American artists, evaluating the needs and the challenges that they have, thus far, faced. Drawing lessons from past endeavors can both enlighten and better direct current and future Arab-American dramatic expressions towards greater visibility and viability.

The events of 9/11 and their ramifications have largely shaped Arab-American theatre, with the current political climate further galvanizing it by reinstating a “clash of civilization” discourse. Growing out of an existing, albeit small, Arab-American theatrical repertoire, which dates back to 1909, the expanding post 9/11 Arab-American theatre has continued to evolve in form, organization, dramatic plots, and audience attendance. Performing mostly in English for Arab-American and American audiences, this new theatre has introduced the Arab American experience, including the search for identity, and struggle against stereotypes, as well as common everyday problems and ambitions. However, the vast majority of these artistic expressions remain at the periphery of American theatre. In its essence, and within its many layers as an immigrant theatre, Arab American theatre evokes a political identity whose expression challenges American foreign policy in the Middle-East, as well as controversial domestic actions after 9/11. More recently, many Arab-American theatre artists find themselves confronting a Trumpian conservative rhetoric which represents an existential threat to their identity and community.

Arab-American theatre continues to expand and becoming more organized. Founded in June 2001, Nibras (translated as Lantern), received an invitation to be a Company-in-Residence at the Off-Broadway New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW). A theatre collective of Arab-American artists, Nibras numbers among its artists Maha Chehlaoui, Rana Kazkaz, Najla Said, Leila Buck, Omar Khoury and Afaf Shawwa. Chehlaoui directed their first work, an ensemble play called Sajjil, (which means “record” in Arabic) which they performed in the New York International Fringe Festival in 2002, where it won the Festival’s Best Ensemble Award. The play recorded Arab and non-Arab American views and perceptions on immigration, Arabness, and Otherness. In 2006, Nibras artists approached NYTW after the cancellation of “My Name Is Rachel Corrie.” The NYTW proved responsive to the Nibras initiative, inviting it to become a Company-in-Residence, a significant moment for Nibras as NYTW could offer much needed exposure to these new Arab-American theatrical voices. Although the Nibras partnership with NYTW came to an end afterwards, another Arab-American initiative being formed at the time, Noor, drew the attention of the NYTW.

Created in 2010, Noor theatre welcomes artists from the Middle East, fostering their ensembles, and helping to produce their work. Founded by three female Arab American theatre practitioners, Lameece Issaq, Maha Chehlaoui and Nancy Vitale, Noor means ‘light’ in both Arabic and Farsi. According to Vitale, in an article by Ginny Mohler of The Brooklyn Rail, the company aims to “allow artists to explore fundamentally ‘what it is to be Middle Eastern, to be an American’ and, for many, ‘to be a woman.’” Noor Theatre has become a Company-in-Residence at the NYTW with its first full production, “Food and Fadwa,” premiering in June 2012. The production of “Food and Fadwa” at NYTW proved very successful and provided Noor Theatre with visibility and publicity.

The Nibras and Noor theatre initiatives have many similarities in common. Both female-led companies advocate a similar message, and both have attracted the attention of the NYTW. However, while the Noor theatre collective has so far managed to sustain itself and continue its successes, Nibras seems to have disintegrated as a collective. The lack of documentation in regards to Arab-American theatre renders it hard to pinpoint the reasons for the success of Noor and the discontinuity of Nibras. However, clearly the NYTW has replaced Nibras with Noor; which may have led to decreased funding, exposure and morale. However, although Nibras no longer functions as a collective, its artists still active produce individual works, but lack the impact of an ensemble.

Meanwhile, Middle Eastern theatre companies continue to present – albeit not exclusively – powerful Arab-American artistic works. Because the media tends to foster the mistaken perception of Middle East as an unanimous entity comprised of countries that share the same geography, culture and religion, negative representations cloak both Arab-American and non-Arab Middle Eastern communities. This has created a sense of solidarity between the different ethnic Middle-Eastern artists, who have joined forces to produce works that would educate, dispel and combat waves of misrepresentation aimed at Middle Easterners.

Torange Yeghiazarian, an Iranian American director/playwright/actress, felt keenly the underrepresentation of the Middle East, as well as the many stereotypes impacting its communities, be they Arab, Iranian, or Turkish. To alter the resulting state of invisibility, and offer a space for Middle-Eastern artists to represent themselves, Yeghiazarian initiated her theatre, Golden Thread Productions, in October 1996, producing and staging one play per year from 1997-2000. In 2000, Golden Thread Theatre started working on a project encompassing stage readings of short plays. This turned into an annual festival called ReOrient which still runs to this day. The company represents a successful venture that managed to address its many challenges by presenting diverse points of view, relying on the support of many immigrant communities, attracting the support of renowned names in the field, and initiating collaborative works with other ethnic minority companies such as Chicago’s Silk Road Rising.

Although the thought of founding a theatre company that would stage the stories of Arab-American minority remained ever present in Jamil Khoury’s agenda, 2001 proved the catalyst year for turning those thoughts into reality. As introduced on its website, Khoury founded Silk Road Rising (SRR) as “a creative response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.” A key imperative for the theatre company, it sought to represent Arab Americans, and the subject of 9/11 in ways that would inform and shape the theatrical responses of silent and invisible Arab-American artists. Furthermore, SRR saw a need to represent not only Middle Eastern artists, but also other minority groups whose artistic expression has become equally marginalized. The idea evolved to representing Americans with ancestry from countries spanning from Japan to Italy, the geographical area historically known as the Silk Road. Until 2012, the company produced live theatre that helped many artists find a voice and representation. It became a home for many who struggled to become visible. SRR produced many plays that carried political messages and advocated a visible cultural presence for minority artists. The Chicago theatre company also proved successful in attracting governmental artistic grants, and reaching out to smaller non-for-profit organizations.

To accommodate an ever-changing artistic scene in theatre, SRR also recognized the need to reach beyond the immediate stage of a live theatre, and in 2012 the company expanded its vision and reach by incorporating non-traditional theatrical expressions with a focus on online audiences. By turning the company website into a platform for artistic works that transcends the traditional parameters of live theatre, SRR managed to rebrand itself and widen its influence. This has allowed the company to fulfill its vision of civic engagement by involving wider audiences in the discussions of urgent matters, addressing pressing political and cultural issues in works such as “Not Quite White,” “The Four Hijabs,” and the timely and successful “Mosque Alert.” SRR’s digital existence enabled it to circumvent the challenges that a traditional theatre company faces. Today, Silk Road Rising has proven itself possibly the most successful theatre company that champions Arab American representations.

The importance of the aforementioned theatre companies remain immense. These initiatives present a platform for Arab- American playwrights where their voices do not appear ‘foreign’ and their subject-matter can be perceived as part of the centre rather than the margin of American culture. Arab-American playwright Yuseef El Guindi talked about this issue in an online discussion sponsored by Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts:

 

“My biggest challenge is finding theatres open to doing Arab American plays…the more theatres like [Golden Thread and Silk Road] that spring up, the more inclined I am (and other writers I’m sure) to explore issues around immigration and the Middle-East. Before the creation of these theatres, I was somewhat hesitant to tackle subjects that I felt would not get past the first reader at a theatre.”

 

These companies, however, face daily challenges in terms of attracting funding and audiences, developing a self-sustained business plan, and combating censorship and marginalization. The durability of Golden Thread Theatre and Silk Road Rising highlights three factors contributing to the success of these two companies. First, they have conducted successful and long-term funding campaigns. Second, they have widening their reach and influence by fostering collaboratives with similar companies and attracting the sponsorship of established academics, artists and organizations. Third, and perhaps most importantly, they have adapted to current changes in the theatrical and cultural scenes by, for example, finding alternative and more inclusive spaces, such as the online sphere.

Finally, with the changing face of cultural production, and the ever-increasing challenges facing ethnic minority theatre, it remains the responsibility of researchers, and academics, as well as digital and print outlets to publicize and document these marginal voices, and ultimately produce an archival digital platform that protects such vital artistic works from historical oblivion. Regardless of their successes or failures, these attempts at creating an Arab-American theatre movement need to be documented and recorded for history: the history of theatre making, and the history of marginal artistic voices.

This theater review appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 72, 2017.
     
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