In 2016, the common belief across the United States is that our country’s relationship with the Middle East is fraught with distrust. But few are aware that artists with deep personal investment, historical ties, and firsthand knowledge of the region are showing a way forward toward rebuilding trust. At Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, we’ve been “reorienting” our artistic and activist communities in this direction for 20 years. We find theatre uniquely suited to elicit empathy because it offers personal stories and helps audiences experience other perspectives. As the company’s founding artistic director, my own hybrid identity as an Iranian-American of Armenian heritage informs my determination to engage multiple perspectives in coexistence; my own experience as a theatre artist informs my belief that theatre is the medium to jumpstart U.S./Middle East dialogue.
We have been producing the now biennial ReOrient Festival of short plays at Golden Thread since 1999, only three years after we started the company. We started the festival because we felt we couldn’t claim to represent the diversity of the Middle East by producing only two mainstage plays a year, as we did then; so we created an evening of short plays to showcase the diversity of aesthetics and perspectives in the region.
The plays often presented different narratives on the same subject in one evening: plays exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, or the Armenian genocide, or the U.S. role in the Middle East. Plays would draw their own audiences, and we soon noticed we had gathered a mini-United Nations in our house. We often experienced deeply moving talkbacks where people shared personal or family histories or challenged each other’s assumptions. Artists and audiences commented on how extraordinary these conversations were, and how necessary they felt. Creating a dedicated space to continue this dialogue seemed like the next natural step—a place where we could expand upon the themes the plays explored, as well as discuss the role of theatre and artists in laying the groundwork for social change.
After doing the ReOrient Festival for 10 years, we convened a special two-day ReOrient Forum in 2009, and it was meant to be a one-time event. But in 2010, I took a sabbatical from Golden Thread and went back to Iran, the country I left at age 14, to live in the capital, Tehran, for six months. I had the opportunity to see many plays every week. I was struck by how packed theatres were and how passionate the discussion was after every play. At cafés around theatres I would see small groups of people debating directorial choices, critiquing the actors, and almost always disagreeing on what the play was trying to say. It was refreshing to see theatre being taken so seriously, to see audiences draw parallels to their personal life so naturally and immediately. Theatre mattered in Tehran, and I wanted to bring that spirit back to my home base in San Francisco. I wanted to replicate that sense of urgency: to create a place in the U.S. where we too could digest our world through theatre. I returned to California with even more determination to dedicate space in our programming for critical engagement.
That’s one reason I felt it was essential to continue the ReOrient Forum. These kinds of conferences or seminars are often held at academic institutions and attended only by academics. In the U.S. we often compartmentalize our gatherings and conversations this way: Academics speak to academics, artists speak to artists, and activists speak to activists. We wanted to bring artists, academics, and activists together, because the scale of the challenges we face requires all voices at the table. It seemed important to share knowledge and build support networks.
So we connected with academic partners, including the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the University of San Franciso’s Performing Arts and Social Justice Program; with community partners who included the Arab Film Festival, the Iranian Film Festival, Jewish Voice for Peace, the San Francisco LGBT Center, Southwest Asian & North African Bay Area Queers (SWANABAQ); with many theatre organizations, including Theatre Communications Group and Theatre Bay Area; and with our ongoing collaborators at Theatre Without Borders. With these partners we mounted a forum in conjunction with our October 2015 ReOrient Festival, which featured nine short plays, presented in rep for a month. The accompanying forum featured seven panels on diverse topics linked by the common thread of activism.
Dr. Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis, kicked off the events with her keynote address “Youth, Activism and Arts,” sharing her research on cultures of protest among Palestinian youth, on post-9/11 politics, and on coalitions among Arab, Afghan, and South Asian youth. Building coalitions was at the center of the panel on Project Alo?, Golden Thread’s TCG-funded international artistic exchange, which featured one-minute video clips captured on cellphones by 10 artist teams based in the U.S., Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Lebanon.
Another panel explored the intersection of queer identity with race, gender, and ethnicity in Middle Eastern diasporic communities. Another brought together several generations of Iranian and Iranian-American artists to discuss the history of staging the Iranian experience on American stages.
For me, three exceptional and rare encounters stood out. These sessions exemplified our determination to constantly push ourselves beyond our comfort zones—to explore tough issues around inclusion, identity, and ethical reflection in the arts.
“Roots, Resistance, and Reconciliation: Performance as Space for Social and Cultural Restoration” was chaired by University of San Francisco professor Roberto Varea and featured visual artist Claudia Bernardi, playwright Philip Kan Gotanda, choreographer and filmmaker Amie Dowling, and author and performance activist L.M. Bogad. This lineup of extraordinarily accomplished artists and activists responded to three central questions: How does performance or art contribute to accessing cultural memory, sustaining resistance practices, and, if possible, facilitate reconciliation processes? What can the creative imagination unlock that may make breakthroughs possible? Is it possible to engage “the other” through a performance work that may reveal a common humanity?
A part-time member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and a Mills College professor, Bernardi is well known for her communal murals and archaeological maps documenting the finding of human remains during the investigation of a 1981 massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador. Working with survivors, she created Walls of Hope in Perquin, El Salvador, where a former interrogation building was turned into an art school and studio by inviting local youth and adults to paint colorful murals on walls that once imprisoned and hid violent acts, thereby reclaiming the space through a process of visual remembering. Gotanda recounted his personal journey of excavating Japanese-American memories from WWII internment camps and the many ways that traumatic experience continues to shape the community’s identity.
Dowling’s choreography is also fueled by imprisonment. “Well Contested Sites,” a dance performance by previously incarcerated men which was filmed inside the former prison on Alcatraz Island, explored imprisonment as a process of segregation, control, and isolation, effectively turning the men’s bodies into “contested sites.” It was deeply moving to watch the video of physically massive men tenderly extending their limbs across space, reclaiming a space of captivity through unexpected gentleness and beauty. They were rewriting their own personal history and reclaiming ownership of their body—a deeply reorienting act.
Bogad, professor of theatre at UC Davis and cofounder of Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA), demonstrated political protest as an art form when it confronted riot police outside the 2005 Group of Eight (G8) meeting in Scotland in an effort to open up restricted public space to new kinds of playful disobedience. One particular photo—of a clown kissing the shield of a policeman—was shared all over the world. “You want to create an image so compelling that even your opponent will keep reproducing it, even though it undermines their narrative,” Bogad said. These presenters’ examples challenged the audience to become more creatively engaged citizens, to creatively reclaim oppressive spaces and subvert dominant narratives.
Contemporary Palestinian writers and activists are regularly engaged in reframing dominant narratives. Thanks to funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Trust, we hosted an unprecedented gathering of Palestinian playwrights from around the globe, offering attendees the opportunity to see Palestinian culture with an unusually broad scope. “Theatre Between Home & Exile: New Palestinian Drama” featured the exceptional talents of Dr. Mas’ud Hamdan, playwright and professor at the University of Haifa, Israel; playwright and director Ismail Khalidi, based in New York City and Santiago, Chile; playwright Dalia Taha from Ramallah, Palestine, currently studying at Brown University; playwright Hannah Khalil, an Irish-Palestinian based in London; and participating via Google Hangout were playwright Rama Haydar from Damascus, who’s currently residing in Malaga, Spain, and playwright and actor Yasser Abu Shaqra from Damascus, currently residing in Gaziantep, Turkey. The panel was co-curated and co-chaired by Prof. Hamdan with translator and scholar Rebekah Maggor, presently an affiliate at the Warren Center, Harvard University.
Maggor and Hamdan selected a diverse collection of excerpts from eight plays ranging aesthetically from absurdist comedy to symbolic abstraction to realistic naturalism, chosen to accompany the panel with staged readings. Golden Thread’s new plays director, Evren Odcikin, cast the readings with enthusiastic Bay Area actors who performed more than 40 characters. Khalidi and Hamdan directed their own plays; Maggor and Odcikin directed the others. The concise and effective presentations surprised many audience members with their skillfulness, insight, and variety of perspective. For those involved, the process offered a hands-on experience of cross-cultural collaboration, and both those participating and those watching ended up with a greater understanding of the many challenges faced by Palestinian artists in creating and staging their work.
As one of today’s largest refugee and diaspora communities (at least prior to the more recent displacement of millions of Syrians), Palestinians rarely have the opportunity to network and engage with like-minded artists, including other Palestinians. In some contexts, they grapple with restrictions on daily movement; in others their travel is limited as refugees. Indeed, our inability to obtain Spanish and Turkish travel documents for Palestinian-Syrians Rama and Yasser—the ones on the Google Hangout—made the urgency of their status painfully immediate. Questions around our privileged assumptions, access to power, and language and meaning, dominated the conversations among audiences and artists.
The program concluded with Khalidi’s introduction to and the official launch of Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora, edited by Khalidi and Naomi Wallace, and published by TCG, which includes plays by Khalidi, Dalia Taha, and Hanna Khalil, who signed copies in the lobby. I took particular delight in watching Palestinian writers put their signature on this, the first anthology of contemporary Palestinian plays in English. The moment seemed to say: “We are still here and we will tell our stories in our own words.”
Telling our stories in our own words has been the driving force behind many culturally specific theatres. The Asian American Theatre Company, the Lorraine Hansberry, and Campo Santo, along with Golden Thread, are some of the pioneers who established that movement in the Bay Area. But is this way of looking at ourselves still useful? We posed this often taboo question in the final panel of the ReOrient Forum, “Is Hyphenated Theatre Dead? Supporting Culturally Specific Voices in an Increasingly Multifarious America.” Chaired by Theatre Bay Area executive director Brad Erickson, this conversation brought together Bay Area executive and artistic directors Sherri Young, from African-American Shakespeare Company (AASC); Mina Morita, from Crowded Fire Theatre Company; Ed Decker, New Conservatory Theater Center (NCTC); Thomas Simpson, AfroSolo; and Lily Tung Crystal, Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company. Also participating in an evolving round table were Emilya Cachapero from Theatre Communications Group, Emiko Ono from the Hewlett Foundation, Roberta Levitow from Theatre Without Borders, and Michelle Mulholland, Golden Thread’s managing director.
Young spoke passionately about the need to focus on developing African-American artists and audiences, even as her company turns 20. Decker recalled the political landscape in 1981, when NCTC was founded in a spirit of activism aimed at providing an artistic home for predominantly white gay men who were fighting for gay rights; by 1984, of course, the AIDS epidemic was the community’s major issue, and NCTC was there to amplify the artistic voices of the community. The LGBTQ community is very different today, Decker noted, and NCTC is “actively assessing how to respond to that.”
Not all the companies defined their mission based on race or gender. Crowded Fire, for example, specializes in new plays that reflect the diversity of the United States and strive to provoke difficult conversations around today’s socially relevant issues. Ferocious Lotus, meanwhile, is committed to creating opportunities for Asian-American artists while also working toward “changing the perception of what it means to be Asian or Asian American in the world today.”
Many questions arose. Do larger institutions, which receive more funding and have more resources, compete with smaller, culturally specific theatres when they produce plays by artists of color? Are larger institutions able to provide the kind of safe space needed for risk-taking the way smaller organizations can? Recalling the time of ethnically specific theatre “labs,” do we want to return to that model—of settling for marginalized homes within major institutional theatres for our experimentation and development? On the other hand, does the funding and audience exist to support the survival of ethnically specific theatres? Cachapero noted that these companies are the most fragile within the American theatre landscape, according to TCG’s field studies.
There was little consensus among the speakers but a few common threads emerged: Artists and narratives from marginalized communities continue to be underrepresented on American stages; there is an ongoing need for theatres dedicated to amplifying voices from those communities; these efforts require adequate (i.e., more) funding if they are to remain effective and relevant; communities are changing, and defining/expressing themselves in new ways. While some speakers emphasized that our stories are American stories, and that we must highlight their universal themes to broaden our audience base, others advocated for redefining or defying simple definitions of hyphenated communities.
At Golden Thread, we grapple with fundamental, even existential questions like this every day. It fuels our process and our work. The challenges are to balance the specific narrative with the universal; to offer a safe haven for artistic risk-taking while remaining solvent as an institution; to engage audiences from marginalized communities as part of a larger invitation to all theatre lovers. While all institutions may face similar challenges and deal with them in varying degrees at different times, for those of us from underrepresented communities, every play serves as proof of our existence. It is a matter of life or death.
Torange Yeghiazarian is founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions. Roberta Levitow, cofounder and director of Theatre Without Borders, contributed to this piece.