Young Muslim New Yorkers Speak Out in Beyond Sacred
Washington - Commenting on the Pope Francis’s address to the US Congress, American radio host Peter Sagal quipped: “We’re anxiously awaiting the first angry Republican to accuse the pope of being a Muslim.”
Islamophobia can be found on the American street and the presidential campaign trail. A school incident in Texas is emblematic of the fear-stoked hyper-vigilance that conjured a bomb scare tizzy from a young Sudanese-American student’s proud display of his home-made clock.
Amid epic turmoil across the Islamic world, the western migration of mostly Muslim refugees and images of the savagery of the Islamic State (ISIS), Muslims report increasing discrimination. In the United States, memories of the 9/11 attacks still simmer, particularly in New York.
Enter five young Muslims. Four were living in New York in September 2011 and the other emigrated two years ago from Afghanistan. They are now performing in a documentary theatre project called Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity. None are trained actors. Now young adults of colour, navigating the complexities of ethnic, religious and sexual identity, they represent the remarkable diversity of Muslims in the United States.
Wearing casual clothes, on stage in a crescent formation, three young men and two women sit in straight chairs facing music stands. The first speaker announces: “A short history of Muslims in America.” The next chirps: “A pop quiz.” And they’re off.
In a question-and-answer format, the players volley little-known facts about Muslims in the United States, illuminating characters by name from explorers to military heroes.
Against a light-suffused, rust-coloured backdrop, a spotlight shines as each person speaks. One asks: “What book did both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams have in their libraries?” Answer: “The Quran.” Clap.
Another queries: “Who was the largest landowner on Long Island in 1640?” The reply: “A Muslim.” One clap affirms each answer. Based on 20 hours of interviews, the script emphasises common values while exploring the players’ coming-of-age struggles. While honouring their individual origins, they clearly identify as proud New Yorkers, where 167 languages are spoken and public schools now observe two Muslim holidays. In dozens of performances, with more scheduled for 2016, the players’ deep sense of belonging and desire to be accepted for who they are touches audiences.
Beyond Sacred was commissioned by the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center and produced by the innovative Ping Chong + Company, under its founder and artistic director, Chinese-American immigrant Ping Chong. The production was partly funded by the Building Bridges initiative of the Doris Duke Foundation for the Islamic Arts. “The important thing,” Chong said “is that when the audience leaves the theatre, they recognise the humanity of these people on stage.”
“We are without a doubt in a moment of rising Islamophobia in the United States,” Ping Chong + Company Managing Director Bruce Allardice said, “We produced Beyond Sacred as a counterbalance to this tide of fear, to remind New Yorkers that ‘being Muslim’ isn’t any one thing but rather a range of traditions that are as diverse as any of the great religions.”
The production won “Critics’ Pick” endorsement by The New York Times, which described it as “an exercise in empathy, not polemics: a lesson in human understanding, drawn from real lives”. National Public Radio also aired a story about the performance. But the best was yet to come.
In September, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and Ping Chong + Company, were awarded the National Medal of Arts — the United States’ most prestigious arts award. US President Barack Obama praised the foundation’s “bold commitment to artistic risk”, lauding the vital role of performers to “help us understand each other a bit better”.
In 2007 the foundation launched the Building Bridges programme, which funds arts and media initiatives.
“The foundation’s overarching mission is to support the well-being of American society,” Senior Programme Officer Zeyba Rahman said. “And Building Bridges is in perfect alignment, using the lens of arts and culture to shift understanding. We’re living in an increasingly complex world which is becoming more polarised.
“Through thought-provoking imaginative processes, artists can reach audiences in all kinds of media that uplifts spirits and creates bonds that can help reduce othering. We must use culture as capital to bring together people in communities.”
From 2014-15 the foundation awarded $3.6 million to programmes across the United States. www.ddfia.org.