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 American soldiers, while the audience around me 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.
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 wonderful theaters across the U.S. and 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.
I’ve started to ask a lot of questions in and about the process.
Most of which are versions of these:
- Who gets to tell the story – and how?
- What responsibilities (should) come with that power?
I started my professional acting and writing career by touring solo work, in part 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 theatrical style is also deeply influenced by my training and work as a teaching artist, particularly Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the work of Augusto Boal, who used theater as a “rehearsal for revolution” and empowered audiences to be spectACTors in that process.
My first multi-actor work, In the Crossing, began as a solo piece based on my experience in Lebanon during the Israeli-Hezbollah war in 2006.
In the talkbacks that followed each performance, I realized that the biggest conflict in the room was the one amongst the audience about the story I was telling – and the questions this 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.
With the deeply dedicated and essential collaboration of my director Shana Gold, and the help of a team of incredible actors, I 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 play, American Dreams, created in collaboration with the brilliant Tamilla Woodard and more incredible actors, is an immersive, interactive game show where the audience votes to decide which of three contestants will be the next U.S. citizen. The work engages 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 La Guardia Performing Arts Center, The Lark, Noor Theatre, Silk Road Rising, Golden Thread Productions, Mosaic Theatre, and Cleveland Public Theatre, who have made space for my work 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 distanced from, ignorant of, and/or biased about, those identities.
I’ve also felt it as a playwright– 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, gender, ability, sexual identity, age, religion, culture, nationality, economic, marital, or parental status, and everything I’m forgetting here based on my own unconscious biases impact that process?
- How can we as playwrights, directors and producers, be mindful of the worlds we create and what they demand of the actors who embody them?
- What do we do when those given circumstances create or fuel unhealthy, traumatizing or otherwise damaging dynamics, particularly for younger and female-identified actors whose richest roles often depend on some level of sexual exposure and physical intimacy?
- What about the many ways our creative decisions are linked 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 fuel stereotypes, particularly of groups who are already marginalized, dehumanized and physically and emotionally violated?
- How do we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable for the power of our work to shape perceptions, especially of peoples and places that are already mis- and under-represented here in the U.S. and beyond?
“WHOA there”, I hear some of you (and parts of me) saying:
“We don’t censor ourselves, or each other.
Write/perform/create/direct/produce what moves 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, in part because that’s how they are most often represented, we are more likely to either actively or passively support 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. Nor is this about censoring anyone’s right to tell the story they want to tell.
I do this, as I’m sure do many of you, because I believe that stories have power.
That they, and we as a theatrical community, have the potential to shift how individuals, ideas, and even whole groups of people 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… accountability, at least.
Lately I have been challenging and questioning my narratives of resistance - of what it takes, and means, to raise issues, focus attention, and spark reflection, dialogue and action toward justice and equity for all.
I am especially moved and fueled by all of you in our field and beyond that are actively engaging with each others’ different perspectives on how to move toward these goals, and responding with a sincere and committed “YES - AND” - always remembering our shared objectives, especially when our paths to achieving them diverge.
I have learned 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. I also know 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 ideas, words or actions.
Because often these dialogues and decisions can and should raise even more complex 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 an unjust system helping to change it, and when is it enabling it to continue unchanged?
- What do we do when we are given 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 well-intentioned and often beautiful 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 sometimes 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 that those of us striving for justice and equity in our work and our world can:
- keep talking about the things that feel the hardest to name out loud.
- ask (or demand) that people with power in our industry to do the same.
- keep asking ourselves, and each other, these and other questions, with compassion, and courage -– especially when we aren’t so sure of the answers.
BECAUSE 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 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 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.
 Adam Abel, Yuval Boim, Adam Green, Kathryn Grody, Lameece Issaq, Kathryn Kates and Maya Serhan
 Ali Andre Ali, Jens Rasmussen, Imran Sheikh, and Andrew Aaron Valdez performed the primary roles in our World Premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre. Osh Ghanimah, Jens Rasmussen and Imran Sheikh contributed significant lines and ideas toward their characters leading up to that production. Jens Rasmussen has been an essential collaborator on the structure and development of the play since our first workshops at Queens College and La Guardia Performing Arts Center, in which Varin Ayala, Monte Bezell, Ahmad Maksoud and Rasha Zamamiri helped bring the first ideas toward the piece to life. Tamilla Woodard was an incredibly generous and brilliant co-creator throughout every stage of the process.
 To learn more about American Dreams and other works made by, with and for immigrant and refugee communities, see the wonderful Staged Migrations feature in the May/June 2018 edition of American Theatre magazine.