A Call for Equity and Inclusion: An Open Letter to U.S. Theaters from Members of the Middle Eastern American Theater Community 

As a community of Middle Eastern American theater artists of varying races, cultural backgrounds, religions, sexual and gender identities, worldviews and artistic aesthetics, we believe the entire theater industry has a responsibility to create a more equitable and inclusive structure for presenting marginalized voices.  

Playwrights Horizons is currently producing Zayd Dohrn’s The Profane, a play that follows two Muslim, presumably Middle Eastern American families. We are deeply concerned by the lack of representation on the lead creative or producing team from the communities being portrayed on stage. Members of the Middle Eastern American theater community have raised this concern, along with issues about cultural representation in the play itself, in direct conversations with the artistic staff at Playwrights Horizons. These ongoing exchanges have been open and constructive, but there is much work to be done.

In the March 30, 2017 New York Times interview by Alexis Soloski entitled “Faith and Identity Clash in The Profane: An Actor’s Roundtable,” the writer interviews the cast of the show – all actors of varying Middle Eastern identity. The talented cast was asked a number of questions ranging from their thoughts on the election, to how Middle Easterners and Muslims are portrayed in media and entertainment.  One question in particular stood out as problematic:

“Was it a problem for you that The Profane was written by a white playwright and has a white director?”

It is indeed a valid question; however, Ms. Soloski ought to have directed her inquiry to the producing organization, Playwrights Horizons, who made the contentious hiring choices - not the actors. The actors in the cast are our colleagues and friends and we support them endeavoring to speak for these larger power structures, as many of us have done in the past. However, actors are employees, and their ability to speak freely in these situations is complicated by that reality. Their job is to interpret the work, not to defend it. They do not exist to answer for those in power.

We also ask: Why, when there are so many gifted Middle Eastern and/or Muslim playwrights and directors, are there still no decision makers of Middle Eastern descent or Muslim faith involved in a production about Muslims? 

As Middle Eastern American artists, we are familiar with our stories being filtered through a predominantly white gaze. We take issue with producing organizations whose choices perpetuate the notion that we are a voiceless, powerless group, incapable of representing ourselves. Such a notion is supported by the continuation of Islamophobia and white privilege, and the Orientalist idea that our stories, experiences, fantasies, and myths need to be expressed for us. This keeps us out of the conversation and out of the full process of creation, and relegates us to passive subjects that must be interpreted, dissected, exoticized and so forth. 

While prompted by recent events, this letter is a response to many years of watching our stories be misrepresented, censored, appropriated, and exploited. Marginalized groups and people of color across the country continue to face these issues. As we bring to light our particular challenges as Middle Eastern and Muslim artists in the U.S., we also recognize our allied communities in this intersectional struggle for equity and representation.

Playwrights Horizons, New York City theater community, regional theaters across the United States, we urge you to:

  1. Invite Middle Eastern and/or Muslim people to be in decision-making positions, whether on your permanent artistic staff and/or as lead artists who author and create the work. Also consider other roles where this may be possible, such as dramaturgs, designers, and stage managers. The burden of representation should not rest on the shoulders of actors alone, but on a full and diverse team of artists. 
  2. Choose to produce plays by a Middle Eastern and/or Muslim playwright. Offer those playwrights commissions and opportunities for their work to be further developed within your organization.
  3. When choosing a play that explores Middle Eastern and/or Muslim communities, consider one that: challenges Islamophobia or dangerous Middle Eastern stereotypes; understands the contexts of colonialism and Orientalism; and explores different angles of history or politics. As you read plays, maintain an awareness of your own assumptions and of the limits of your knowledge. Ask yourself whether the piece relies on stereotypes and if its structure or premise would work if transposed onto other identity groups with which you may have more familiarity. 

This is an urgent call to diversify the full-time production staff of mainstream theater. 
The overwhelmingly monolithic power structure is the root cause of the imbalance we see. People of color are shut out of important discussions around season selection, authorship, and authenticity. The cyclical nature is troubling: When gatekeepers are largely similar in heritage and cultural experience, they often share the same blind spot, and we’ve seen much troubling content fall through that hole onto our stages. Content that, often unintentionally, reinforces unhelpful narratives. That work is then seen by audiences who share similar blind spots, and reviewed by critics through the same narrow lens. The circle is thus complete. 

Given the power of narrative and story to impact our nation’s decisions around immigration, the refugee crisis, and foreign military intervention, we believe the stakes are too high for us to allow this to go on unchecked. 

This letter is our call for a public discussion to be held around these issues. 

You may sign in solidarity here: http://bit.ly/2oCkWO5

We also invite you to engage directly with us.  
To do so, contact Maha Chehlaoui at Maha@passthemicmedia.com.

Sincerely,

Lameece Issaq, Founding Artistic Director, Noor Theatre

Together with:

Leila Buck, Playwright, Actor, Intercultural Educator and Facilitator
Maha Chehlaoui, Founder, Pass the Mic Media; Founder, Noor Theatre
Thomas Dolan, PhD Candidate, American Studies, George Washington University
Kareem Fahmy, Director, Playwright
Noelle Ghoussaini, Director, Playwright, Educator
Jamil Khoury, Founding Artistic Director, Silk Road Rising
Ismail Khalidi, Playwright
Mona Mansour, Playwright
Pirronne Yousefzadeh, Director, Writer, and Educator