American Theatre Magazine - What Can Theatre Do? A Post-Election Colloquy, Part 1 / by R. Sheth

Two-Way Listening

So he won the election. Shock, fear, and anger morph into responses, both coherent and otherwise. And yet, while heartbreak overwhelms, clarity and renewed focus emerge as its natural counterweights. I think of how in 2002 my husband Malik Gillani and I founded Silk Road Rising as a response to the anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-South Asian hatred that followed 9/11. We had the audacity to suggest that America’s stories could be told through Asian-American and Middle Eastern-American lenses, and that people of all backgrounds could see their stories in our stories. Not by us, for us, but by us for all. Now we must ponder our response to 11/9, the day the election results became official.

American theatre is at its best when strengthening notions of citizenship and democracy. As theatremakers and political activists, we can no longer be satisfied with brick-and-mortar venues and devoted audiences alone. Cultural dysphoria has spoken. “White nationalists” envisage a newfound legitimacy, and this tale of two nations foretells decades of strife as millions of Americans feel their citizenship, and our democracy, in peril. If we hope to make change, we must leave our liberal echo chambers periodically, and engage with communities who feel alienated and disrespected by us. Not to swap slings and arrows with irredeemable bigots (that 20 percent is lost), but to engage the majority who long for understanding and hope. They will hear us if we hear them; we are only elitist and irrelevant if we remain inaccessible.

While we’re at it, how about we free ourselves from the tyranny of the fixed theatre season? Activism dies in the monotony of the production mill. Not everything needs to be fully produced. Transporting full productions is expensive and complicated. Think more mobile and minimalist. Think solo performances, staged readings, readers theatre. Think video plays and broadcast plays. Think the Internet and Skype. We have tools that were unimaginable throughout most of theatre’s 4,000-year history.

This is not a new frontier for me. In developing my play Mosque Alert, I learned that I can’t write about fear of Muslims without listening to people who actually act on these fears by resisting the building of mosques. This meant inviting them into my process by holding public conversations in 40-plus communities. It meant disseminating 37 videos online and soliciting feedback. It meant listening respectfully to ideas I find repugnant and ascribing them integrity in my writing. As a result, my play became a “safe space” for those with whom I disagree; only then did these so-called adversaries begin opening up to our side of the story.

I also learned it wasn’t failure when audience members arrived at radically different conclusions than I had hoped. Some Islamophobes felt affirmed by my play—an inherent risk, and a reminder that conflating democratic practice with consensus doesn’t work. This wasn’t always easy and I was certainly no hero. Anger often got the best of me.

But if I want to combat Islamophobia I need to engage its practitioners. You’d be amazed how black and white these conversations are not.

Jamil Khoury, artistic director, Silk Road Rising