YES - AND: Asking ourselves (and each other) tough questions about creation, privilege, power & responsibility
(Sign reads: How we act, how we relate to ourselves, to our bodies, to the people around us, to our work, creates the kind of world we live in, creates our very freedom or suffering. From "Seeking the Heart of Wisdom" - h/t LaChrisha Brown for Jen Marlowe's There is a Field)
I’m always skeptical of any one version of a story.
As the daughter of a Lebanese mother from a mixed Muslim and Christian family, and an American diplomat father, I grew up in Kuwait, Oman, Iraq, Canada, and the U.S.
I have lived, worked, and traveled in 22 countries, and experienced how different cultures and realities exist simultaneously through the privilege of moving between them.
When my father was posted in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war, we survived scud missiles regularly until I was evacuated. Barely two years later, from the safety of our new home in Ottawa, I watched our country bomb our old neighborhood - because the story had changed. Not long afterwards, I went to see Courage Under Fire, and wept as the city I’d called home was blown away as backdrop to the deaths of three Americans, while my fellow audience members cried for Meg Ryan. Soon after that, a colleague in the State Department received instructions not to call what was happening in Rwanda genocide, “because then, we’d have to do something.”
These experiences, among others, shaped my belief that the stories we choose to tell, and how we tell them, can have real impact on lives both here and across the world.
So I write with a lot of hyphens -- an instinct to connect people, places, and ideas that might seem distant-- to explore both the uniqueness of our experiences and the relationships between them.
AND – I ask a lot of questions.
Most of which are versions of these:
- Who gets to tell the story – and how?
- What responsibilities (should) come with that power?
I’ve created, performed, and facilitated work dealing with the first Gulf war, mixed identities in NYC, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the (mis)representation of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S., the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration, and more.
I’ve gotten to do this in high school auditoriums, church basements, UN headquarters, and some pretty great theaters around the world.
Along the way I’ve tried and failed and frozen and f$#$ed up; had too much ego and sometimes not enough; fallen silent; just plain fallen, and gotten up and tried again.
My work is also shaped by that of Augusto Boal, who used theater as a “rehearsal for revolution” and empowered audiences to be spectACTors in that process.
I started by touring solo work because it allowed me to change things up to and in the moment of performance, in dialogue with audiences and events in my life and the world.
My first ensemble piece, In the Crossing, began as a solo work based on my experience in Lebanon during the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006.
In the talkbacks that followed each performance, I realized the biggest conflict in the room was the one amongst the audience about the story I was telling – and the questions that raised for me as a playwright and performer:
- How do we own our own truths and also make room for others?
- How do we talk about the things that divide us with the people we love – or strangers?
- When do our personal experiences inform the work in critically useful ways – and when do they create blind spots, assumptions, and biases that affect, and detract from, the work?
- Who can we call on to help us see those blind spots, and improve our work in the process?
- How do the stories we choose to tell, and believe, come to shape who we are?
So I decided to make the play (and basically all my work since) about those questions.
In collaboration with a team of incredible actors[i] with the pivotal direction of Shana Gold, we added characters to represent different perspectives on my story and made the original solo performance a play within the play, and the second act a staged “talkback” -- a partially-scripted, structured improvisation between actors in role and audience members whose questions and participation kept the play responsive to the events of the day.
My latest ensemble work, American Dreams, created in collaboration with the brilliant Tamilla Woodard and more incredible actors[ii], is an interactive game show where the audience votes for one of three contestants to be the next U.S. citizen. The goal of the work is to engage audiences and communities with the question of what we would do if it were up to us, in a direct, immediate way, to decide who will be our neighbors: To move beyond “build the wall” or “let them all in,” to more complex investigations of our biases, beliefs, assumptions, and fears, and how they affect decisions about who to trust – and in the process, what it means to be(come) American.
I’m grateful for places like The Lark and La Guardia Performing Arts Center and Cleveland Public Theatre, who have made space for this piece and many others by, with, in and for underrepresented communities, and creative processes that push traditional boundaries.
Because making and sharing theater, particularly work that seeks to challenge political and/or aesthetic norms, requires engaging our bodies, hearts and minds, and the intersections between them. And that process can be particularly complicated for people from groups underrepresented in most theaters.
I’ve felt this as an actor - an unease in my chest and a knowledge in my gut that the way my character is speaking (or not speaking) is in part because she is female, or Arab, or both, and the creative team is distanced from, ignorant of, and/or biased about, those identities.
I’ve also felt it as a writer – that the character I’m creating is one- (or maybe two-) dimensional because of my removal from or assumptions about them.
As a writer, my job is to create the work – and to do so I need to follow, and trust, my instincts.
And as an actor, my job is to make it work.
SO – more questions:
- Where do we make and share our work? With whom do we choose to collaborate, and how do we engage with them in doing so? How do race, religion, gender, culture, nationality, economics, access, and sexual identity impact that process?
- What do we do when the reason something is NOT working may be connected to dynamics of power and privilege? How do we honor the creative team’s vision, as well as the people that vision may distort, blur, or overlook entirely?
- What about when our stories, consciously or not, fuel stereotypes, particularly of people who are already marginalized, targeted, and dehumanized? How do we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for the power of stories to shape perceptions, especially of peoples and places that are already mis- and under-represented?
WHOA there, I hear some of you (and parts of me) saying:
We don’t censor ourselves, or each other.
Write what comes to you and @#$% anyone who tells you otherwise.
YES - AND:
History shows that the stories we tell about a people are connected to the way we treat them.
If we believe a group of people are violent and dangerous, because that’s how they are most often represented, we are more likely to support, or at least not resist, stripping them of their rights, freedom, dignity, or even their lives.
This is not to blame us as artists, individually or collectively, for policies we do not make and crimes we do not commit.
Or to judge or censor anyone’s right to tell the story they want to tell.
I do this, as do many if not most of you, because I believe that stories have power.
That they, and we as storytellers, have the cumulative potential to shift how the communities we represent are seen, both on and off stage.
That our work can either challenge, or fuel, dangerous narratives that have real-life consequences.
And with that power comes…at least, accountability.
Recently, I had three opportunities to put these beliefs into action:
- Helping to draft the Call for Equity and Inclusion from Middle Eastern American theater artists.
- Signing the letter to Lincoln Center supporting Palestinian, Israeli, and other artists protesting performances by companies who have repeatedly performed in settlements in violation of international human rights law.
- Writing an email to my agents explaining why I would not audition for yet another series capitalizing on Islamophobia through a narrow and sensationalist lens.
In each of these processes and the dialogues around them, I was challenged to stretch and question my ideas of resistance - of what it takes, and means, to raise issues, focus attention, and spark dialogue and, inshallah[iii], action.
I was reminded that I generally do better working FOR what I believe in than AGAINST what I don’t; creating work vs. protesting it; calling IN vs. calling OUT; that those decisions are personal, messy, complicated, and almost always flawed; that it is challenging, and sometimes scary, to attempt to distill complex political, cultural, professional, and personal experiences into a play, letter, or any other public forum, leaving ourselves vulnerable to those who may simplify, misconstrue, or attack our words.
More than anything, I was moved and fueled by my colleagues’ abilities to hear each others’ different perspectives and respond with a respectful combination of “YES - AND” - always remembering our shared objectives, especially when our paths to achieving them differed.
All of these dialogues and decisions (of course) raised more questions:
- Where, when and how are our voices best used?
- When do we let our work do the work, and when do we take action outside and beyond it?
- When is our participation in a system helping to change it, and when is it enabling it to continue unchanged?
- What do we do when we have access to work because of our privileges, and/or are asked to “speak for” groups that can and should speak for themselves?
- How do we create more opportunities for marginalized communities to tell their/our own stories, without shutting out the contributions of more privileged artists and allies?
- Where do we each fit in that spectrum of privilege(s)?
- How do we own our power and also speak truth to it?
- What is the role of acceptance in resistance? Not acceptance of injustice and inequity – but of our different ideas about how we resist?
- When do we embrace complexity, uncertainty, and contradictory truths?
- When do we make strong, actionable choices that inevitably shut out/down some of those alternative truths? (Notice I did NOT say facts, ‘cause that’s a whole other thing).
- How do we engage with those who answer these questions differently?
- Do our responses to these questions actively support equity and justice for all?
I recognize that I have the luxury of even asking these questions in part because I create my own work, and teach, and have other privileges which (sometimes) allow me to contemplate them, and to say no when others can’t afford to do so for fear of the professional or financial consequences.
I believe most of us have the opportunity, and, with it, the responsibility, to question and challenge inequitable power structures both in the work we make, and the processes and institutions through which we make it.
So I hope we
- keep talking about the things we’re afraid to talk about– especially when we don’t have all the answers.
- ask (or demand) that people with power in our industry do the same.
- keep asking ourselves, and each other, tough questions, with compassion, and courage.
At a time when so many feel a deep divide between various definitions of who “we” are, theater offers opportunities more vital than ever:
To connect our hearts and minds with people, places, and ideas we might not encounter otherwise.
To see that the distance between “us” and “them,” “here” and “there,” is sometimes shorter – or more complicated -- than we think.
To respond to what is actually happening within, between and around us, in shared space, in real time, together.
In that process, and its products, to shift how we see ourselves, each other, and the spaces in between.