By Jamil Khoury, Silk Road Rising Founding Artistic Director
Published in The Dramatist
Theatre makers are often called upon to respond to the challenges facing our world. It is assumed, rightfully so, that we contemplate those challenges, pose relevant questions, and conjure would-be “real life” scenarios through dramatized storytelling. And the global challenge I find most alluring? That beckoning gulf dividing nation-states and how they define national identity. I think a lot about nation-states and the cultures and identities they produce and export. Some of these polities are quite durable (including, I believe, the US), while many others won’t survive to see the 22nd century.
It’s reasonable to believe that many of today’s nation-states are but blips on the continuum between empire and confederal democracies (or multiethnic “superstates”). Imagine a reconstituted, non-autocratic, non-racist “Ottoman Confederation,” or a confederation of Orthodox Slavs or the Central Asian “stans,” each carving out provisions for cultural-linguistic autonomies and decentralized governance. Imagine if we spoke of communities and pluralities as opposed to majorities and minorities. There are those who predict the coming irrelevance of nation-states, their functions and management to be assumed instead by interdependent global super cities and transnational work patterns. Time will tell. But for now, nation-states are what we have, and so we’re parsing our way through shifting narratives of “nationality,” “citizenship,” “race,” and “ethnicity.” It’s the lucky dramaturgs who get to sift through all the backstories and subtext.
Questions abound as to what it means to be American or Brazilian, French or South African, Syrian or Indian, and so on. Ethno-nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms spar openly with democratic principles and the rights of minorities. In the US, white supremacist practices and segregationist impulses undermine civic equality and our nation’s ideals. A “browning” population confronts doggedly determined racial hierarchies. In the Global South (Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia), colonial cartography and mutated borders bolster neo-colonial rulers at the expense of postcolonial subjects. Often bereft of legitimacy (whether historic, geographic, and/or cultural), these concocted states reveal weak national identities and fractured, fragmented communities. In both “first world” and “third world” contexts, “who we are” and “who we are not” become the pressing, salient questions, while the dangerous norm of conflating rule of law with majority rule remains firmly entrenched.
As demographics continue to change, as migration patterns increase ethnic, racial and religious diversity within localities and regions, as birthrates and aging curves assume radically different trajectories, the tensions between that which is pluralistic and polycultural on the one hand, and that which is assimilationist and monocultural on the other, become that much more acute. It’s the mosaic versus the melting pot, the transnational versus the particularist, the cosmopolitan versus the tribal, the inclusive versus the restrictive, the empathic versus the racist.
Furthermore, how do we preserve identity while both separately and simultaneously expanding, recreating, and transcending identity? And what of those who wish to remain separate, apart, and distinct—those for whom consistency and continuity is more important than engagement and interchange? These questions not only impact social and public policies, they influence relationships within and between communities and affect conversations about representation and storytelling. Which stories get told, how, and by whom, become fodder for debate. Storytelling tells us a great deal about a community’s self-perception and how narratives, images, and power gets wielded in that community.
I can’t help but feel troubled by the often violent and exclusionary outcomes of what I call, “the new xenophobia,” one that “plays defense” against cultural differences—differences that demand recognition and respect. This phenomenon assumes many forms. White nativism is one; notions of normativity and “mainstream-ism” are another. The extremism of movements like ISIS leave no doubt as to who does and does not belong. Whether we’re speaking from a US perspective or from various global perspectives, I believe theatre makers have an enormous role to play in shaping conversations about local and national identity. After all, we model these identities through the stories we tell. We dramatize the cultures we wish to become. We become the representation we produce on our stages. We perform the empathy that leads us to change. Unfortunately, even theatre makers are not immune to status quo-ism; many actually prefer to enforce sameness. I’m under no illusion that we all embrace pluralism—indeed, some perceive it as an existential threat.
I have long described my theatre company, Silk Road Rising, as a rumination on 21st century Americanness. And while we ruminate rather seriously at times, we can still find jest in our identity politics. We exist, in part, to help define what it means to be American, and to actively refute those who’d prefer an America without us. If identity is a cultural marker, then we’re here to make our mark.
Artists must lead. In other words, it’s the artists who do the defining.
As I see it, national identity takes its cues from stories and images. Artists must lead. In other words, it’s the artists who do the defining. Economics and greed can disrupt and derail, armies and religious fanatics can obstruct and destroy, but ultimately culture prevails. We’re the nation builders. We forge identity, and it’s up to us to decide how we harness that power. Reimagining the nation-state as both inclusive and consensual is a start. Dreaming up what comes next promises to be even more fun.
Jamil Khoury's "Identity Nation: One Theatre Maker's Perspective" was first published in The Dramatist (September/October 2015), the official journal of the Dramatists Guild of America and the only national magazine dedicated to the business and craft of writing for theatre. “Identity Nation” builds upon a question Khoury responded to as part of an online blog salon for Theatre Communications Group 2015 National Conference: Game Change.
Click HERE to read the essay in PDF format.