What Makes Good Theatre? What Purpose Does Good Theatre Serve? / by R. Sheth

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November 25, 2005
By Jamil Khoury

What makes good theatre? Let's just say I know it when I see it. And I've been fortunate to see a good deal of it on Chicago's stages.

These days I find my quest for good theatre to be intricately linked to questions of representation, cultural "authenticity," and definitions of diversity. As co-founder and artistic director of Silk Road Theatre Project, a company dedicated to showcasing playwrights of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean backgrounds, I have spent the past three and a half years immersing myself in the cultural production of America's "Silk Road" Diasporas. Along the way, I have experienced a lot of good theatre. I have also been forced to ponder the "role" of theatre, its function and utility, and its responsibilities, if you will. And I've learned that conversations about good theatre arrive at vastly different conclusions within notions of "community"-an amalgamation of the ideological with the presumed-to-be "cultural."

I like to think that good theatre elevates human consciousness; it challenges us, provokes us, even slaps us around a bit. Good theatre questions, it probes. By definition or default, it is a political act. It helps us to evolve. My own subjective lens favors theatre that is somehow linked to social and cultural change. Born of a generation shaped and culled by "identity politics," my artistic sensibilities were greatly influenced by artists allied to the feminist and queer movements. Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" comes to mind as a particularly important example of what I would deem good theatre.

But in assigning such responsibilities to good theatre, and assuming they're universal, I have encountered some unexpected resistance that has been both alarming and deeply disturbing. In conversations these past few months surrounding Silk Road's world premiere production of Yussef El Guindi's Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith, I have found myself "locking horns" with a "cultural expectation" that projects upon theatre an altogether different set of responsibilities. Far from pushing the envelope, good theatre exists to affirm dominant culture values and celebrate the social status quo. In other words, good theatre reinforces cultural "norms," it preserves social hierarchies; it is cheerleader, not rabble rouser, whitewash, not exposé.

By my definition, Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith is good theatre. It is intelligent, beautifully written, and entertaining. The fact that it also humanizes a Muslim-American family is, sad to say, quite a feat in today's political climate. Neither propaganda nor polemic, the play presents Muslim-Americans as real people, conflicted and complex; people grappling with everyday issues, such as faith, culture, sexuality and marriage. Thus, whether by choice or happenstance, Ten Acrobats becomes part of a much broader process, one of disentangling the representation of Arab lives from centuries of Orientalist misrepresentation.

Unfortunately, for some, such merit gets trumped by an agenda diametrically opposed to what I call good theatre.

Consistent with Silk Road's grass-roots orientation, a good deal of our marketing for the play involved outreach to local Muslim communities. In so doing, we inadvertently set-off a debate within the Muslim community (or rather segments of it). Some have even called it a "controversy." All of a sudden a discourse ensued that crystallized around a play few had either seen or read.

The fault lines weren't Muslim/non-Muslim or observant/non-observant. They were liberal/conservative. And the points of contention were rooted in hearsay about the fictional family's three children: an atheist son, a somewhat rebellious daughter, and, most troubling of all (for the conservatives at least), the existence of a possibly gay son.

Bear in mind that all along we and the Muslim playwright have wanted this play to incite discourse and debate amongst Muslims. So perhaps we got what we wished for. And yes, the support of certain liberal and moderate Muslims has been extremely heartening. But our community outreach efforts brought home to us something quite frightening, something we'd much rather think about in the theoretical (cloistered away in our liberal Chicago bubble), than confront head on.

That something is the very lethal threat that social conservatives, of any religious or cultural stripe (and God knows Christian conservatives have been battling good theatre for centuries), pose to the practice and possibility of good theatre. And that the right to create and produce good theatre, even here in Chicago, is not one that should be taken for granted. It is a right that has to be fought for and defended.

The LA-based theatre company that originally commissioned Ten Acrobats backed down from producing the play after receiving complaints from Muslim conservatives. The conservatives maintained that gays, atheists, and rebellious daughters don't exist in the Muslim community and that therefore the play is "unrepresentative." The company got scared and nixed the play. And that's in LA, folks!

Fast forward to these past few months. Our executive director, Malik Gillani, and I set up meetings with leaders of local Muslim organizations. In the course of each conversation, we were told that in order for "x" organization to "endorse" the play, thus guaranteeing us "a large Muslim audience" (we, incidentally, were never seeking endorsements, but merely help in getting the word out), the play's content would have to be "slightly" changed. And the changes were quite "reasonable:" get rid of the gay son (first and foremost), get rid of the atheist son, purge the daughter of any and all doubts about wearing the hijab and entering into an arranged marriage, get rid of the Muslim woman who wears a bathing suit, and change the play's logo so as to reflect modesty and virtue! It was, after all, the playwright's "duty" to represent a "wholesome" and "pure," idealized Muslim family, so as to "dispel" any "negative impressions" "Americans" may have of Muslims.

Perhaps the most disturbing comment of all came from a Muslim leader who, fully aware that he was speaking to two gay men, told us, in so many words, that he'd rather a Muslim be represented as a terrorist than as a gay man!

Needless to say, the experience of "reaching out" proved troubling on several levels, particularly as some of those same leaders later appealed (unsuccessfully) to Silk Road's key supporters to withdraw their support for us and the play. Yet when all is said and done, we are deeply gratified in the knowledge that Silk Road is presenting a uniquely pro-Muslim play and feel that our efforts are vindicated every time Muslim audience members thank us for producing the play and for sticking to our guns.

Just as people have the right to espouse views that condone censorship and the denial of artistic freedom, we have the right to create and produce good theatre. It is a right we all need be a bit more diligent about preserving.

Jamil Khoury is artistic director of Silk Road Theatre Project.