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Arts and Culture

Theater performance explores Muslim American identity, growing up after Sept. 11

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Adam Nadel
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The full cast of "Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity" on stage.

A New York City theater company is bringing the voices of a minority to central New York this week. “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity” shares the day-to-day experiences of five young Muslim Americans. Their stories are told on stage -- not by actors -- but by the storytellers themselves.

As performer Maha Syed explains, the call for cast members occurred on a community level.

“The call was really for people who somehow identify with the Muslim community and like to tell stories,” she said.

"It almost brings another layer of authenticity to it and a relatability to it that I think makes it much of a more personal conversation."

While “Beyond Sacred” is a theatrical performance, it’s not a work of fiction. The storytellers on stage are telling their own stories and many of them had no experience in theater or performance when the show premiered four years ago.

“I do think that the way this really relates and resonates with our audience is through the vulnerability that we bring to the stage -- our lives, our histories, our parents, and grandparents and problems,” Syed said. “Part of that can sometimes be that we’re obviously not actors. It almost brings another layer of authenticity to it and a relatability to it that I think makes it much of a more personal conversation.”

Ping Chong + Company, the theater company behind the performance, produces pieces that address important cultural and civic issues. “Beyond Sacred,” and other works in their “Undesirable Elements” series, explore the intersections of race, culture, history, and more in the modern world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XktjcpGnacM&t

“Most Americans are going based off of what they’re seeing in the media and that’s really never Muslims talking about their own experiences. It’s people talking about us, and it’s the news, and it’s painting us as a monolith,” Syed said.

"From the moment that we step on stage, we're all different colors, we're all different backgrounds. We practice in very, very different ways."

But the issue goes deeper, according to Syed, especially when it comes to religiosity.

“From the moment that we step on stage, we’re all different colors, we’re all different backgrounds. We practice in very, very different ways,” Syed said. “And then when we actually start telling our stories -- that’s only more pronounced.”

"Everyone already knew what they needed to know about Islam and the Middle East."

All of the performers in “Beyond Sacred” are in their 20s and 30s. On September 11, 2001, some of them were teenagers, others still in middle or even elementary school.  Nonetheless, they remember the shift in thinking and perception that occurred after 9/11.

“I grew up traveling a lot and I was living in the Middle East until the year 2000,” Syed said. “I had just moved back to Long Island, New York. It was a mostly white high school that I went to. Nobody knew what Islam was, people were not familiar with the Middle East, but then a year later it was just such a quick flip. Everyone already knew what they needed to know about Islam and the Middle East.”

As the audience hears the stories of Syed and the other performers, they begin to see that a broad brush can’t be used to paint a picture of Muslim identity.

“We’re talking to a theater full of strangers about some of our worst experiences of our lives, and some embarrassing moments, and some coming of age moments. People are also willing to ask questions that they wouldn’t otherwise ask at the end,” Syed said. “It just speaks to a real thirst for this conversation. These forums don’t exist very much and so I hope that people at least start talking long after the show is over.”

Syed’s story, along with the stories of four other Muslim Americans, can be heard tonight at 7:30 in Sheldon Hall ballroom at SUNY Oswego. Tickets for “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity” are available online and by calling the SUNY Oswego box office at (315) 312-3073.

FULL INTERVIEW AUDIO AND EXCERPTS

BeyondSacred_LL_fullinterview.mp3
Full interview: A conversation with Maha Syed
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On becoming involved with "Beyond Sacred"

"So, Ping Chong + Company is the theater company that put together a series of documentary theater projects. The wider series is ironically named 'Undesirable Elements,' and 'Beyond Sacred' is one production in that. But they’ve been doing it for 25 years, and they all have the same format, which is they’re all interview based. It’s all stories being told by the actual people, not actors. They’re people sitting on stage. There are music stands in front of us and scripts in front of us, which is the only reason I can do this because I’m terrible at memorizing lines. And there’s rhythmic claps and scene changes and usually music or poems in the middle. And so, this production was housed in LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and the way that they put out a call for applications was through the student base but then also through the arts community in New York. And the call was really for people who somehow identify with the Muslim community and like to tell stories. So, one of my friends sent me the application and was like, 'This sounds like it was meant for you.' And I was like, 'Yeah, let me consider it.' And then, another one did it, and by the time the third friend sent it to me, I had already applied. So, it was just a really good match for me, but I know, out of the five of us, three of our performers are actually affiliated with LaGuardia Community College, so they heard about it on campus."

On not having a theater or performance background

"I say this quite often because my initial nervousness about the piece was about how it was going to be received because, to me, I’m so honored to be in this production, and I love my fellow cast members like brothers and sisters, but it’s an hour and 15 minutes of us just talking about our lives. And to me, I didn’t see how that would be interesting to people watching us. And so, I do think that the way this really relates and resonates with our audience is through the vulnerability that we bring to the stage, that it is us talking about our lives, our histories, our parents and grandparents and problems. And part of that can sometimes be that we’re obviously not actors. And so, it almost brings another layer of authenticity to it and a relatability to it that I think is really warm with the audience, and it makes it much of a more personal conversation."

On incorporating their own stories into the work

"It’s not at all a work of fiction. At times, it’s actually verbatim how we relate our stories. The way the writing process worked was that we submitted a paper application that was quite extensive, had information like what our first memory was, our favorite cultural tradition, our favorite foods, and then, we went in for an in-person interview that was about two hours long where we were just asked to expand upon things. And that was all recorded. And then, there was another one of those. And so, in the second in-person interview, we were asked to fact-check a lot of information we gave in the first interview because you never know what you’re going to end up talking about. … For me, it was this weird, almost like a journalistic mission. … It’s really interesting to be able to go back and treat your history in such a factual, categorical way that I just absolutely hadn’t any more, so it was really incredible."

On the evolution of their stories since "Beyond Sacred" premiered

"It’s been four years since we first premiered, and so, part of the complication of having real people perform their real lives in chronological order is that time has gone on and our lives have gone on. And huge political and international events have happened that have affected the Muslim communities since 2014. The way that we incorporated it is sometimes … the theater company, the writers actually reached out to us to ask us if anything’s changed, how we’re feeling, whatever, so that the play isn’t eight hours long at the end of it and we don’t just keep adding to the end. … The play starts in 1947 and ends the day we’re performing it."

On why the message of "Beyond Sacred" is an important one

"I like to throw out this statistic that less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is Muslim, and Muslims are, as all immigrant communities, gathered in certain urban spots, and so, most Americans have never met a Muslim. So, most Americans are going based off of what they’re seeing in the media, and that’s all you know about Muslims, and it’s really never Muslims talking about their own experiences; it’s people talking about us and it’s the news, and it’s painting us as a monolith. I also think this is sometimes an issue within our community, where religiosity is seen as a very singular way of practicing and looking and behaving and dressing, and so, I think this is a conversation everyone needs to have. And, from the moment that we step on stage, we’re all different colors, we’re all different backgrounds, we practice in very, very different ways, and then, when we actually start telling our stories, that’s only more pronounced. And so, I think it’s really important to not only see that Islam and the Muslim community does not operate as a monolith but that there’s so many experiences that we share with other people. And there’s so many that are imposed upon us by society and by these perceptions of what it means to be a Muslim."

On how things changed after 9/11

"Pretty dramatically, and I think we’re a unique generation in that way, that we remember and we were of such vulnerable ages when 9/11 happened that it’s really sealing it in our minds what it was like to be this minority group before and then after this horrible tragedy. For me, it’s particularly vivid because I grew up travelling a lot and I was living in the Middle East until the year 2000. And so, I had just moved back to Long Island, New York, in the year 2000, and that year, it was a mostly white high school that I went to, and nobody knew what Islam was. People were not familiar with the Middle East; they thought it was near Chicago. And so, I remember being really sort of set and shocked at how little people were aware of things outside of the continental United States, but then, a year later [9/11 happened]. And you remember because it’s traumatizing being a new kid in a new country, but a year later, 9/11 happened, and it was such a quick flip. And I still wasn’t being asked about myself because everyone already knew what they needed to know about Islam and the Middle East and everyone was already an expert all of the sudden because they were watching TV. So, it was really traumatic for me."

On exposing younger students to the realities of living as a minority

"I think you can know a lot about minority experience and think you know everything you need to know about Islam, but you don’t know the five of us. There’s a question we get often, which is are we preaching to the choir even. I think it’s just about it’s a humanizing experience, and so, I don’t know where people are coming from. I won’t presume to know where people are coming from, and everyone has their own struggles, and I don’t think anyone can walk away from this production not being able to relate to some part of one of our stories. But I also think there’s so much to learn about the diversity and the way that we deal with human experience and struggle. The play’s not just about Islam. That’s just one part of our multi-faceted identities, and so, I do a lot with traveling and with gender issues, and working in social justice is a huge part of my narrative. We have someone who’s converted, someone who’s really questioned faith, some who’s biracial and doesn’t know where he belongs. You could say that I look like I know what a diverse experience growing up would be, but I learn so much from my fellow classmates, so I think there’s just a lot to learn from each other."

On having a dialogue and changing opinions

"Social media can be used for so, so much, and I hope that it’s used for these things that will make the world a little bit smaller and help us share and understand each other’s stories more and not rely so much on what networks pick up and don’t pick up to hear about communities that we don’t necessarily have exposure to. I don’t know, and I’m not on Twitter, so I’m not the most social-media savvy, but I really, really hope that these conversations keep happening. And I feel like, from these times of trials, the one thing that is happening is recognizing that these conversations need to happen more often and that we’re operating under a lot of misconceptions about other communities and we should be talking to each other a little bit more. So, I really hope so."