You’re Going To Do My Play And It’s Going To Be A Hit: ‘The Mecca Tales’ Defies Stereotypes
I recently had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Rohina Malik and Kareem Fahmy, the writer and director (respectively) behind The Mecca Tales, upcoming at the Sheen Center (presented by Voyage Theater Company and Crossroads Theater Company, Oct. 20-Nov. 4; tickets $17/$20). The play, which is structured around the rituals of the Hajj, combines keenly observed portraits of Muslim women from all walks of life with the wonderful details and annoyances of camping out with a group of strangers in blazing heat, looking for the nearest port-a-potty when you ought to be seeking spiritual transformation.
When we spoke, Rohina was in Chicago, having just come home from rehearsal another one of her plays, Yasmina’s Necklace, going up at the Goodman Theatre October 20 through November 19 (more info here). Rohina lives in Chicago, and The Mecca Tales premiered there in 2015 (it was subsequently nominated for a Jeff Award for Best New Play) So at this moment, Rohina is going to rehearsals in two different cities for two different plays – weekdays in Chicago, weekends in New York. Not bad, I’d say. As we spoke (on speakerphone, Kareem and I cuddled up on the benches outside Abrons Arts Center), I couldn’t help but admire Rohina’s clarity of vision and purpose. Kareem can put it better than I:
“She’s no bullshit. She knows who she is, she knows what she’s doing, and she’s not here to apologize for anything. And it’s very striking. There’s something amazing about seeing a covered Muslim woman artist who’s willing to say “you’re going to do my play and it’s going to be a hit.” It defies whatever stupid stereotypes exist. She’s a devout person, she’s interested in stories about devout people, and she thinks there’s room for them on our stages, so she’s telling those stories. And that fulfills a huge lack. And the best part is, she doesn’t come to producers and say “this is for a tiny audience.” She says “this is for everyone.” And that to me is why I wanted to do the play. As soon as I met her I thought “here is a playwright who has a mission, and that mission is so vital right now.”
The following is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, which went on, pleasantly, for just about an hour.
Jerry: Where did this play come from?
Rohina: It really was the setting that started it for me. Mecca is a place that only Muslims are allowed to enter. And I thought, “Isn’t it cool that with theater you can take anybody anywhere?” I like the idea of taking folks who might not be Muslim into a space that normally is reserved only for Muslims. I thought that was cool.
Jerry: I’ll say that’s one of the many things I enjoyed about reading it. I feel allowed into a world that otherwise I don’t necessarily have access to and don’t necessarily see represented very often in American culture. And part of what’s so exciting about the play is that it follows a group of women, so we get to see Islam embodied in very different ways by very different people who each have very different relationships to it and different histories with it.
Rohina: On television and in films, Muslim characters are always the villains. And that’s so disturbing. Often you have folks who are not from this world at all writing stories about Muslims – and they might have the best intentions while they do it, but it still falls into stereotype. When I write, I’m not trying to show “good Islam” or “bad Islam.” I’m just trying to tell a story with interesting characters. And their voices are very familiar to me, growing up in such a diverse Mosque and such a diverse community.
Jerry: What I think is so deft in the play is that it feels so lived and so well observed, and at the same time you seem conscious of the fact that you are speaking to an audience that perhaps doesn’t always know what you’re talking about. And it doesn’t feel pandering, but it does feel generous and open.
Rohina: Part of what’s been so great about working with Kareem, because he has a connection to Islam, is that he’s actually helping me to strip a lot of that away. He looks at the script and can say to me “this section feels teach-y, you don’t need to explain yourself here.” Kareem is the first director I’ve worked with ever in my career who comes from a Muslim background – I can’t even express to you what a big deal that is, and how special that feels to me, and how different that feels.
Kareem: I actually didn’t know that you’d never worked with a Muslim director before.
Rohina: Never. Never.
Kareem: That’s kind of astonishing to me. Because so many of the conversations we’ve been having in the community lately are about who is actually in the room interpreting and crafting Muslim stories, particularly with all the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric against Muslim people in the last year.
Historically the stories of Muslim people on American stages have been filtered through a non-Muslim lens – essentially preventing people who have lived that experience to tell their own story. And we’re still not where we should be in 2017. We’re still behind. We’re still very behind.
Rohina: In the past, when it’s been directed by people who are not Muslims, they always say “The stuff that explains the religion – keep that. Go further with that. More, more, more.” It was nice to hear Kareem say “you don’t need to explain it.”
Jerry: To me as an audience member, that always feels more interesting.
Kareem: It actually feels like kind of a daunting responsibility to be doing this play in New York and in America right now. In 2017 America, just showing a Muslim person on stage just being devout somehow becomes a provocation. It somehow becomes “political” theater. Which is, of course, a big problem. Just this week, Youssef El Guindi, who’s a wonderful Middle-Eastern playwright, wrote a really great article in American Theatre magazine about exactly that issue. [Note: Seriously, go read the article. It’s pretty amazing.]
But that kind of politicization is completely the opposite of what you’re doing, Rohina. You’re writing from your experience and bringing us into a world that you’re familiar with and that we’re not seeing enough. Putting it on stage not as provocation, but as a part of life.
Rohina: In the media, Muslims are so rarely normal people. We’re never normal. As a mother of four kids, as a human being who has a normal family, that’s very disturbing. And I know, as a woman who covers, when I walk down the street, the looks I sometimes get – I know there are people who have all these crazy thoughts about who I am and where I come from and what my belief system is. The media is mostly responsible for that.
So that’s part of what motivates me as a playwright. I want to write from my heart, I want to tell a story about these people who are very familiar, very normal, but whom we so rarely get to see.
Jerry: What were the reactions like in Chicago?
Rohina: A lot of Muslims in Chicago don’t go to the theater because we never see our stories reflected on stage, and when we do often it’s just the same old stereotypes. People don’t want to go and pay money to see that. But when producers in Chicago were considering my play I said to them “If you move forward with my play, you’re going to bring in a whole new audience.”
And sure enough, my play was full of a diverse audience. Many people who were not from the faith, many people who were. It was really beautiful to see my community come in such big numbers. That was something I knew could be possible if people took a chance on other voices.
Did you see The Dramatists Guild’s study on statistics on who’s getting produced in America? It was very upsetting. Obviously white men are getting produced the most [62.7% of the time, to be exact. 73.3% if you include foreign white men.] And if you look at the number of female playwrights getting produced, most of them are white [14%, 16.5% if you include foreign white women] . If you look at the numbers of minorities that get produced, it was very disturbing [10.4% total, men and women, foreign and U.S.]. And if you look at the number of people who identify as female and minority – it was tiny. [3.4%, 3.8% including foreign women of color. Yikes.]
Jerry: It’s so helpful to have those statistics.
Rohina: We always knew that was happening, but now we have solid proof.
Jerry: And you now also have solid proof of what happens when the theater does the right thing and programs something like this play.
Rohina: When my shows have been produced in Chicago I hear producers saying “we’ve never had a hit like this.” Producers, pay attention! Do something different! Tell stories from other communities, and you will get that kind of response. They may think “well, we might not have the audience,” but I think people are hungry to hear new stories. They don’t want to just hear the same old same old same old.
Jerry: I think so many theaters operate under the assumption of a white audience, and program to that white audience, and thus perpetuate that same white audience. They think “our audience won’t know how to connect with this.” And your reply to that way of thinking is so smart, you’re saying “well, your audience will get bigger!” And the people who don’t know how to connect with it will figure out how. Because it’s a human story.
Rohina: Obviously a vast majority of Chicago Dramatists’ audience is white America. And they came, and they laughed from their hearts, and they walked out of that theater crying. I saw it with my own eyes. Yes it was a world that’s maybe not their faith, that maybe they’re not a part of, but they were affected by it. And that’s what I want as a writer. I don’t want to write something that just moves a Muslim, I want to write something that connects to humanity, because we are all the same underneath it all.
At this point in our conversation, Rohina had to leave. But as the sun started to set, Kareem and I stayed and chatted for a little while longer.
Kareem: As we talked about last time, we need to expand the canon of plays about the Middle East and about Islam. And in that canon there needs to be room for plays that deal explicitly with spiritual practice and devout people who are grappling with spiritual questions, rather than with the Western idea of politicized Islam. Is this faith good for me? What am I doing? Where am I going? How does this serve my family?
Jerry: Which are questions I don’t see raised too often under the banner of any faith on our stages.
Kareem: Before I read the play, I wasn’t sure how into it I was going to be. I was thinking, you know, I’m never going to go on a pilgrimage, I wouldn’t be welcome there. But then I started thinking how for any practicing devout Muslim, the Hajj is something you go into to change your life. Both of my parents went on it, and both of them changed significantly. You approach the Hajj searching for a transcendent, life-changing moment.
And when I realized that, I was like “oh my god, that is so theatrical.” What is the essence of great theater?
It’s watching somebody grapple with something way bigger than themselves.
Jerry: And in this play it’s five very different women grappling with it in very different ways for very different reasons. Part of what I love about the play is that it’s dealing with that very huge human need, but it’s also filled with people complaining about port-a-potties.
Jerry: That stuff doesn’t stop just because you’re looking for something transcendent. In fact, it becomes more annoying, because you’re like “where is my life changing experience? All I am is uncomfortable.”
Kareem: It doesn’t matter if you’re on your spiritual journey to Mecca or you’re in a yoga class and the person next to you won’t stop coughing. We all understand that relationship between the minutia of daily life and the recognition that there’s something bigger going on. It’s a universal experience that transcends any faith.
Jerry: You’re talking about a very intense emotional state. And in this play every character has a moment of real emotional reckoning. I’m curious about how it’s been to bring actors to that kind of deep spiritual / emotional place. How have you been able to build the kind of space to engage with those questions?
Kareem: We had to create a scenario where everybody felt really comfortable either talking or not talking about their own spiritual practice. I said right from the outset that we need to deal with the fact that this is a play about faith and spirituality. Generally, for me at least, one’s own relationship to faith and spirituality is a very private thing. Frankly I take offense when somebody asks me if I’m Muslim based on what I look like. I’ll answer the question, but I always find it a bizarrely personal question to ask a stranger. I don’t think one should make assumptions about anybody, nor do I think it’s anybody’s business. Ultimately your spiritual practice is like your sexual practice, or the relationship you have with your romantic partner. It’s a private thing. And if you choose to share it with the world, that’s great. But a person shouldn’t have a default assumption that they have access to that information about another person.
But at the first rehearsal I presented the idea that we have to be transparent with one another about how we connect or don’t connect with a higher power. And we’re lucky to have a tremendously grounded, wonderful group of very generous actors who want to approach this work with their whole self. So it’s been sort of shockingly easy. Every day in the room – this is 100 percent true, and it’s really shocking to me – every day in the room we all laugh hysterically, and at some point almost everybody is in tears. Every day.
Jerry: That reminds me of two things I’ve been thinking about a lot – and these are not ideas I’ll take credit for, but ideas I’ve been borrowing. The first is the way in which the play you put on is just a record of the rehearsal process. It’s the result of how everybody’s been treating everybody in the room for the past few weeks. And the second is that the play itself is a chance not only for a performance, but also for a rehearsal. So what you’re pointing out is one of the very cool things about this play that as an audience member you might not be aware of, that to put on this play isn’t just about tapping into your Juilliard training or whatever. It’s about a group of people getting together every day to talk about larger questions of spirituality. Which is amazing! Because it’s rare to get to do that.
Kareem: It’s really forced me to identify what I’m trying to do when I put the Muslim experience on stage. With this play, every day has been about stripping away anything that’s trying to teach or indicate. We’re not adorning the Muslim experience. There’s no quotation marks around it. There’s no attempt to make it “palatable” to a Western audience. I threw all that out at the first rehearsal.
Jerry: That makes for a more interesting work of art, and raises the bar for a non-Muslim audience. It gives me as a non-Muslim audience member a chance to come to the play and come to a world that’s different from mine in a way that opens me up more, rather than allowing me to assume that you, Kareem, should do the work of understanding on my behalf.
Kareem: I feel like that sort of stripping away of anything that indicates “Other” is exactly the sort of work we should be doing as theater artists right now. But a lot of the rhetoric of “tell your own story” actually pushes the art form farther away from the experience – “tell your own story” becomes “explain yourself to a white audience.”
Jerry: You’re talking about removing the level of self-imitation and getting to the level of simple, concrete existence. I’m all for that.
Kareem: It’s hard. It’s hard because there are these ingrained responses to whatever stupid things feel Muslim-y. Here’s a good example – the play in an earlier draft called for all the women in the play to pray in unison. I told Rohina immediately I didn’t want to do that. Because I’ve directed these plays before, and I’ve seen how when you have a group praying in unison it’s all too easy for a non-Muslim person to look at it and say, “Wow, look at that. How ritualistic.” It’s othering. And frankly, we’re beyond that.
Jerry: Another thing I love about this play is that the female perspective of it feels very unadorned. It’s about Muslim women, but it’s not pushing directly against stereotypes. Instead, it refuses the very premise of the stereotype in the first place.
Kareem: The one point when a character complains about her hijab is because she’s hot! She doesn’t go on a whole monologue about how “oppressed” she is, or what it “means.” At first I wondered if that meant we were avoiding an issue. But then I realized this play isn’t about the question of whether Islam is good for women or bad for women. That’s a question that comes from a white American perspective. The more powerful thing to do is to say that that perspective isn’t valid to the story we’re telling.