“The Profane” by Zayd Dohrn at Playwrights Horizons. Pictured: Ali Reza Farahnakian, Francis Benhamou, Babak Tafti, Tala Ashe, and Heather Raffo. (Photo by Joan Marcus)
Members of the Middle Eastern-American theatre community took to the internet last week to express growing concerns about the representation of Middle Eastern Americans both onstage and behind the scenes. Though it’s part of an ongoing debate, with implications reaching before and beyond the current moment, the occasion for the discussion this time is Zayd Dohrn’s new play The Profane, running at Playwrights Horizons through May 7.
Although the cast members of the new production are all of Middle Eastern descent, the creative team does not include a Middle Eastern-American voice, and Dohrn is white. This lack of direct representation, authorial power, and equity spurred the release of a detailed public statement led by New York City’s Noor Theatre on April 26.
The statement reads, in part: “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.”
Dohrn’s play is about two Middle Eastern-American families, one secular and the other religious, who spar over their culture and their faith with the impending marriage of their children. Noor Theatre’s founding artistic director Lameece Issaq has been in touch with Playwrights Horizons since February, when the theatre’s associate artistic director, Adam Greenfield, reached out to her about The Profane. Issaq says she recommended a number of plays written by Middle Eastern playwrights, and offered names of people Greenfield could contact to discuss the content of the play.
But while Issaq was open to discussion, she faulted the theatre’s timing. The play had long been selected and the creative team was set before members of the Middle Eastern-American theatre community were asked to consult on decisions the theatre had already made. These private conversations were constructive on both sides, but Issaq and members of the Middle Eastern-American theatre community felt it was important to open the discussions to a wider audience.
“Part of the reason why we are doing this publicly is because we want to engage as many people, particularly decision makers, in the ideas that we are putting forward,” said Maha Chehlaoui, cofounder and former executive director of Noor Theatre. “We do not have the resources to keep doing this again and again.”
And for her part, Issaq noted that Noor’s letter, which has garnered more than 300 signatures, has been supported by many people who are not members of the Middle Eastern-American community. “This statement is speaking to a lot of different communities, not just ours,” said Issaq. “And that is when you see things change—when communities get behind each other. There is power in that.”
Making the statement public, though, did change the conversations among the artists involved.
“The issues surrounding inclusion in the letter have long been discussed by both the MENA [Middle East/North African] theatre community, the artists I serve with in this play, and were discussed in and through our entire creative process at Playwrights Horizons,” said Heather Raffo, an Iraqi-American actor and playwright, who stars in The Profane. “However, the release of the letter, and the Facebook posts preceding it, did fundamentally change the discussion. I’ve seen greater divisiveness, because the letter confuses the pressing notion of equity and inclusion with a censorship-like critique of a single play…In asking for platforms to make our own art, the letter implies a need to exclude others making art.”
On April 27, Playwrights Horizons issued a response acknowledging the issues raised about the production and thanking the Middle Eastern-American theatre community for being open to discussion. “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 theatre community and in this open letter,” the statement reads in part. “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.”
In commenting of the aftermath of the statements, Greenfield also asserted his belief in not limiting or excluding writers from exploring new experiences outside their lived experiences. “I genuinely want to make sure that the story of this is a story of coming together, and not a story of coming apart,” he said about the controversy.
Greenfield wasn’t surprised that conversations ensued after the production and its creative team were announced. Playwrights Horizons read the play two-and-a-half years ago, then set the production into motion. “The world has been moving very quickly the last several years, and a lot of the discussions about equity, diversity, and representation have accelerated very quickly,” said Greenfield. “As I was seeing that happen, I began to look at what I sensed was going to be this conversation that is surrounding The Profane. We knew this play was going to present an opportunity to have all those discussions, and so let’s have them. The door is going to be open, so let’s walk through it together.”
Greenfield first reached out to the Council on American-Islamic Relations to get feedback on the play’s content, particularly a provocative scene in which a character tears a page from the Koran. He also conversed with Catherine Coray, program director for the Lark Play Development Center’s Middle East/United States Playwright Exchange, about the play.
Greenfield said that his conversations fell into two kinds: Some people were most concerned with the need for change in the institutional structures of theatres; others were more concerned with the play’s content. Jamil Khoury, founding artistic director of Chicago’s Silk Road Rising, who helped to shape Noor’s statement, falls into the former camp: He has not seen the play nor read the script. His concerns lie with the lack of Middle Eastern-American artists in the production process.
“We place a strong emphasis as an organization on the authorial voice,” says Khoury of Silk Road’s mission, which mandates that playwrights and protagonists be of Middle Eastern or Asian descent. “Which is not to say that people who are not from Silk Road backgrounds are not able to write about Silk Road peoples. We just that felt it is really important that voices from communities who have not been represented or felt represented on American stages have space to do so.”
For Khoury, it’s not about censoring Dohrn—“I’m not going to say that he doesn’t have the right to tell this story; I don’t believe he doesn’t have the right”—but about opening the door to others. “I think that theatres often overlook critical and compelling work created by artists of Middle Eastern background in favor of white artists. We’ve seen that over and over.”
Chehlaoui said she doesn’t blame Playwrights Horizons for standing by its choice to produce Dohrn’s play and hire Kip Fagan, a white director: “That is what organizations should do when they make decisions.” But that’s not all they should do, she added. “I do think we are at a time now, when we are representing marginalized communities, it is not enough to say, ‘I know we are supposed to do that, but we did this because we really believe in this other artist.’”
The question of authorship is one Greenfield has been thinking about a lot about this past year.
“For me, a great writer is a writer who takes leaps of empathy, and to my mind that ability to take a leap of empathy is central to the talent and craft of writing,” he said. “I think that a good, thoughtful writer is really trying to imagine himself into the hearts and minds and experience of other people—as long as it is being done well and responsibly, as I think Zayd has done.”
Raffo went further, turning the question of authenticity raised by Noor’s statement on its head.
“What right do we as MENA artists have to write plays about people outside the MENA community? Can we write plays about white people? Are many of us in fact not white Americans? Or half white? What other lenses do we ourselves carry that influence our work? How will we be judged by ‘others’ living ‘over there’ when we so often write about ‘over there’ or ‘back home’?” For Raffo, “one personal marker of success” would be “if I someday get asked to write about something other than Iraq. I think our value as MENA artists is in how we move through the world, what we understand about it, and how we have been bridging seemingly incommensurable cultures. This talent can be brought in many ways into the American theatre beyond just the telling of Middle Eastern stories.”
Chehlaoui doesn’t seem to agree that Dohrn’s representation hit the mark in aptly portraying the Middle Eastern-American experience. While many of the theatre artists we spoke to were mum on the topic of the play’s content, Chehlaoui said that her own personal issues with the work centered on its portrayal of Islamophobia as emanating from secular Muslims toward other practitioners of the faith, which many critics have pegged as the play’s theme.
“If you talk to the Muslim community in America and ask them what their deepest concerns about Islamophobia are, I guarantee you that 99.9 percent would not say that it is [coming from] other Muslims, secular or not,” she said. “I’m not saying Playwrights Horizons framed the play this way, but it is very interesting to me that a play about two families who make up the Muslim community is being counted as a play about Islamophobia. Is that the entry point that an American non-Muslim audience needs, examining Islamophobia?”
Personal assessments of the play aside, Issaq said that Noor’s intent with the letter was to go beyond this current controversy and spark conversations around larger issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion for Middle Eastern-American artists in the American theatre—namely the question of power in the rehearsal room.
“It is less about that play specifically and more about, how do we have a seat at the table?” as Issaq put it.
The cast of Middle Eastern-American performers certainly had seats at the table. But Noor Theatre’s statement expresses concern about placing such a large responsibility of representation on the cast members—a task too often placed on actors in comparable situations. Khoury, for one, said that he has heard from many Middle Eastern-American artists over the years who have been asked to defend, contextualize, or justify aspects of an experience or culture, even when it is not within their own personal purview.
“I’m not diminishing the role of actors in the room, but as the letter stated, the actor is empowered up to a point,” said Khoury. “Actors of Middle Eastern backgrounds bring a lot into the process, particularly if they are encouraged and made to feel safe doing so. But the actor is essentially there as an employee of the theatre and is carrying out the vision of the playwright and the director.”
Countered Raffo, “We all have agency. We were generously supported in both our points of view and our interpretations of the characters. Like in any worthy rehearsal room, we challenged the process and the process challenged us in return.”
And though he didn’t speak for this story, Ali Reza Farahnakian, who portrays the character of Raif in the play, seems to be all in, calling himself in his playbill bio “an Iranian-American actor who is profoundly honored and humbled to be playing this role, in this play, written by this writer, directed by this director at this theatre at this time in New York City.”
What do the signatories of Noor Theatre’s letter hope will come of the statement? Said Khoury, “My hope is that all of us as theatre artists, as producers, and as producing organizations, really start to look at these issues holistically.”
Issaq said she hopes for a growing pool of Middle Eastern-American writers and commissioning programs. She lifts up current organizations and theatre companies, including Silk Road Rising, Mixed Blood Theatre, the Lark, and Sundance Theatre Lab, among others, for leading as examples.
Among the theatres that are on board to do more commissioning along these lines? Playwrights Horizons, which has been working to line up a production of work by Mona Mansour (one signatory of Noor’s statement). Indeed, Greenfield said, around the time the Profane controversy was bubbling up, “We were in the middle of securing funds for the current fiscal year’s commissions when were contacted by an anonymous donor who wants to fund plays by Arab-American playwrights,” Greenfield said. The theatre, he said, had already been “excited about Mona’s growing body of work. What a wonderful, lucky confluence of funding and influence.”
The donor has named the commission the Amal Commission—amal is Arabic for “hope.” Said Greenfield, “And it is our hope that this will be an annual commissioning program with Mona being the inaugural recipient.”