When you think about Muslims, who do you imagine?
Is it the son of an Egyptian shop owner and a Catholic Puerto Rican from the Bronx? Or a non-practicing man who grew up in a mostly Baptist town in the South? How about a young woman who was once a goth punk and now wears hijab?
Those are some of the cast members in “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” a theater production from Ping Chong + Company that premiered last year. “One of the things that the group really demonstrates is that there’s no one Muslim identity or no one Muslim culture,” says Sara Zatz, a co-producer of the show, in a documentary short.
“Beyond Sacred” tells the true stories of five Muslims coming of age in post-9/11 America. It is part of Ping Chong + Company’s ongoing “Undesirable Elements” series, which brings marginalized voices to mainstream audiences. Previous shows in the series have focused on language, disability, child sex abuse and more.
In “Undesirable Elements” performances, the people onstage are not professional actors; The ones whose oral histories make up the script play themselves. For instance, a 2012 production about conflict in the Congo included a cast member who escaped a child soldier training camp.
To create “Beyond Sacred” last year, Zatz and her colleagues Ping Chong and Ryan Conarro used an interview-based process that the company has developed over dozens of UE shows. With this piece, they had more difficulty than usual finding participants. Yet the response to the performances has been huge, illustrating a truth well known to journalists: some of the most difficult stories to get are the ones that most need to be told.
Zatz, Chong and Conarro started by issuing a call for participants through theater networks, interfaith groups and Muslim student associations in New York City. About 20 people responded, which is fewer than for other projects, according to Zatz, who has been involved with about 30 UE productions.
In an interview with ivoh, Zatz attributed that challenge to “a growing sense of fear and distrust in Muslim communities in New York City.” One Muslim friend who Zatz asked for outreach assistance said she was afraid to share names of contacts, lest they think they were being reported for something.
The producers conducted two-hour interviews with those who applied. They built on information from a standard questionnaire used for UE shows.
“We tell people that we’re going to interrupt them a lot,” said Zatz. “And mostly that we’re looking for anecdotes, so if you say, ‘Have you ever experienced racism?’ and someone says, ‘Yes, every day,’ you need to get more of a story that you can create a theatrical experience out of.”
After the interviews, Zatz, Chong and Conarro selected five cast members. The diversity of the group was intentional. “The predominant assumption is that Muslim equals Arab or from the Middle East, so we also looked for people from backgrounds that challenged that assumption,” said Zatz.
Drawing on the interviews and follow-up conversations, the producers then crafted a script that weaves together the participants’ personal histories, as well as historical information about Muslims in America and poetry by cast members.
During performances, the cast sits in a semi-circle onstage, telling their stories in an overlapping, chronological narrative.
When the timeline reaches September 11, 2011, for example, one woman recalls pushing her family to attend a neighborhood vigil to “show loyalty.” A young man tells of how his mosque was bombed the same day. Another describes fleeing Kabul after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Although the casting demonstrates diversity among Muslims, the bigger message of “Beyond Sacred” is about essential similarities among all people.
“The audience comes in and first sees difference,” said Chong in the documentary about the production. “But by the end of the show … what they see is the commonality of human experience.”
The fact that it’s real people telling their stories amplifies that message. Cast member Maha Syed said this of the experience: “Muslims are talked about in the country, we are rarely talked to, and even more rarely heard. ‘Beyond Sacred’ allowed people to hear our perspectives and let strangers into our lives. Our vulnerabilities became theirs; our experiences un-foreign.”
“Beyond Sacred” has been performed on more than half a dozen stages since April 2015. Next fall, it will go on a national tour in at least five cities. That’s unusual for “Undesirable Elements” shows, said Zatz, partly because the cast members have other jobs and responsibilities. Ping Chong + Company is also in early discussions about creating another show about Muslim identity in Detroit.
“The level of interest and demand nationally for ‘Beyond Sacred’ far exceeds anything I have seen before,” said Zatz. “I think that is reflective of the times we live in.”