by Richard Hinojosa · May 3, 2015
Ping Chong and Company has been producing incredibly moving and relevant theatre works for decades. This particular project, Undesirable Elements, has been active since 1992. Its approach is to go into marginalized communities and work with the residents on using their lives and their words to create a piece of interview-based theatre. Ping Chong and Company has created over 50 productions using this rubric and if the performance that I was fortunate enough to witness is any indication of past productions, they have discovered an extremely compelling method of revealing the experiences of under-represented communities to a wider and diverse audience.
This particular manifestation of Undesirable Elements, Beyond Sacred, is a project that explores the stories of people who self-identify as Muslim and came of age in post-911 America. The production that I saw is the centerpiece of a yearlong initiative at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center called Unthinking Muslim Identity. The goal is to open a dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in order to challenge stereotypes.
The production is rudimentary and yet very powerful in its simplicity. Essentially, it is an ensemble spoken word piece. The stage is bare except for six chairs, music stands and mics. The only movement is created by lights coming up on the individual speakers. There is a screen behind the stage that is used for mood lighting and some projections. The music underneath everything is exotic and sultry. When the performers take the stage, they sit in unison and begin speaking their individual lines that are a part of the story for each member of the group. The manner in which they take turns telling parts of each other’s story binds the performance (and the performers) together in a way that instantly draws you in.
They begin with a little family history, taking us through time while revealing their hopes, fears and desires along the way. They land in post 911 America at which point everything changes for them. Suddenly, they are feared as a threat. They are now a target. Patriotism surges and they have become the enemy. Though each of them has a singular story to tell they all have a common experience of wanting to fit in at some point in their lives. While they explore the universal human need to be a part of a group, it is their discovery of which group to be a part of that really hits home. Some of them come to Islam later in life while others either accept it as who they are or reject it as not for them.
The production succeeds on many levels. It brings captivating stories from a range of different experiences. Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, who grew up going to a Christian academy, finds her Muslim roots later in life. Ferdous Dehqan fled war torn Afghanistan for America when he was 18. Kadin Herring, who grew up in a conservative town in the South, discovers that his father’s Islam may not be what he wants. Amir Khafagy , the epitome of a home grown New Yorker, grapples with his mixed Puerto Rican and Egyptian roots. Lastly, Maha Syed travels the world, speaks several languages and works tirelessly to affect change. It also succeeds in exposing the absurdities of stereotypes and the hypocritical nature of our mindset about the Muslim community. It demonstrates they are like people everywhere – complicated and contradictory. It shows us real people living through the same struggles as everyone else. It reminds us that we are all fragile and beautiful and worthy of love.
The stories feel genuine and heartfelt. The play is warm and often funny. It is not about faith. It does not attempt to push religion in any way. It’s about the journey to self-discovery. It’s about growing up and learning that our innocence is perishable. The performers are not trained actors and their delivery of the script is very endearing. I was rooting for them from the get-go because there is no pretense and no egos, just honesty – pure and simple. They support each other’s story telling with their individual strengths and offer the audience their combined talents. The ensemble gives an absolutely fantastic performance! The play is static and yet I felt so moved by their words. I loved the rhythmic clapping in between segments, the repetition of certain phrases and unadulterated sense of sincerity in every line.
As someone who works in arts education, Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity, is a show I wish I could present to all of my students. It is edifying and entertaining. Students of any age could learn from an experience with this show. But it’s not just for school kids. It’s meant for everyone. It’s meant to bring audiences together to form a community on performance night where they undergo a universal exchange with each other and the performers. It is a catalyst for dialogue beyond the performance. It’s essential theatre.