There has recently been a concerted effort in American theatre circles to address failures to authentically represent Muslim and Middle Eastern peoples on stage. This has included interventions from Noor Theatre, a New York theatre company dedicated to the work of artists of Middle Eastern descent; similar statement from Silk Road Rising, a Chicago-based theatre company that tells stories through primarily Asian and Middle Eastern American lenses, and San Francisco-based Golden Thread Productions, a company that focuses on the Middle East; as well as my cranky ruminations on Disney’s Aladdin and its associated live-action theatrical remake. Much of the intent and content of these criticisms focuses on the need for increased authenticity in casting, as well as the inclusion of Middle Eastern and Muslim artists in decision-making positions in theatre.
In Trump’s America, earnest attention to diversity, especially with respect to reviled groups like those of Middle Eastern and/or Muslim background, is essential. One of the ways theatrical productions can serve as a force for inclusion and understanding is by featuring and promoting dramatic works that honestly and authentically reflect Muslim and Middle Eastern voices and experiences. The Mecca Tales, by playwright Rohina Malik, presents a welcome step in this direction, without romanticizing the personal and professional challenges of putting equity into practice.
Running from October 20 – November 4 at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York City, The Mecca Tales is a joint production by Voyage Theater Company and Crossroads Theatre Company. The play tells the story of an international group of women on hajj, facing the stresses of strangers, mechanical failures, and loss – all amidst the experience of spiritual awakening. As they face their past, and the forces that brought them to undertake the hajj, the women confront their own demons and learn how to lean on each other.
As Malik told Muftah, dispelling assumptions about Muslims is crucial to her work, in The Mecca Tales and otherwise, since “people don’t realize the consequence of stereotyping. When you see these ugly stereotypes in entertainment, it dehumanizes a community.” From the perspective of the play’s director, Kareem Fahmy, simply showing a devout or veiled Muslim in a positive light challenges dominant portrayals in mainstream media, where Islam’s practices either “aren’t shown or are equated with something wrong or sinister.”
From Fahmy’s perspective, however, the play’s most important contributions are the personal human moments that make its story universal:
I have my own issues with the faith and doubts about any organized religion – it’s been provocative for me to face these judgments and deal with them, but the point of the play isn’t about that, it’s about how women use faith to empower themselves. Those of us who doubt will appreciate that quest for clarity and giving up the things that hold you back. However you get to that – Mecca, transcendence, religion – the desire for that or reaching for that goal is what makes the play universal.
Mecca Tales features a diverse crew and cast of actors. Kareem Fahmy is of Egyptian descent, as is the play’s dramaturg, Salma Zohdi. The actors include Cynthia Bastidas, Kimberly S. Fairbanks, Mariam Habib, Gulshan Mia, Jade Radford, and Louis Sallan. When it came to casting, the creative and production teams looked for actors who reflected the diversity of Islam (the show’s characters are written to be African-American, Pakistani, Arab-American, Argentinian, and Iranian). In this way, the show pushes back against assumptions that theatrical productions must include a “white anchor” in order to make them relatable. As noted in a wonderful interview in Culturebot with Fahmy and Malik, Mecca Tales underscores the degree to which theater producers have underestimated audiences ability to relate to non-white characters, and overestimated audiences’ putative whiteness. The Mecca Tales critical and popular success in Chicago in 2015, for example, demonstrates that the narrowing of the “theatergoing public” to an imagined (and shrinking) white demographic is more a result of production choices and failures to reach out to diverse theater lovers, than a reflection of the racial and ethnic makeup of interested audiences.
Shows like, The Mecca Tales, also help cultivate a diverse community of theatre professionals. One of the play’s actresses, Gulshan Mia, described, for example, how important it was for her to see Malik’s solo show Unveiled in 2009. A tour-de-force one-woman show written and originally performed by Malik, Unveiled showcases the perspectives of five Muslim women who are trying to make sense of life in a post-9/11 world. “ I’ve been acting for a long time – but when I saw Unveiled – I felt that I could do it, and I did. As a Muslim woman, I felt represented, I saw myself, and knew I could do this. That’s the simplest part of what representation is to me – it’s seeing yourself onstage, on film, in magazines and knowing that you too could do this,” Mia said.
In many ways, the pressure to confront stereotypes unfairly burdens The Mecca Tales, and other work by diverse playwrights, actors, and producers. Trying to “demystify” incredibly diverse communities simplify cannot be done in a few hours’ time. But, the intensity and urgency of at least attempting to do so cannot be overstated. It is critical for the greater theatre community not only support these efforts, but to engage in the concerted systemic change that is necessary to effectively confront exclusivity and prejudice in theatre. As Mecca Tales actress, Mariam Habib, noted to Muftah, by pursuing equity in the selection of plays and actors, the theater community might help “people gain perspective on the things which connect us as human beings: love, loss, adversity, self-fulfillment.” Or, in the words of producer Wayne Maugans:
For industry professionals, I’d like them to see that it is not only possible, but actually incumbent upon them to strive for more diversity, especially among the South Asian and Middle Eastern diaspora. Cultural equity starts at the top. It’s literally a decision about ‘whose stories get to be told,’ and more theater producers need to take on the challenge. It’s difficult work, but we simply must lead the way on this. Our entire national identity is hanging in the balance.
Shows, like The Mecca Tales, help us imagine a more inclusive theatre that represents America’s diversity. To achieve this goal, even in at a time when the arts are under assault, theatre producers and professionals must, like the characters in The Mecca Tales, take a leap of faith.
To purchase tickets to The Mecca Tales, click here. The production will move to the Middlesex County Community College Performing Arts Center in Edison, NJ, on November 8.