Creating the Change: Featuring Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi
With Raymond Bobgan and Omar Kurdi
Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.
Marina J. Bergenstock: I’m Marina.
Nabra: And I’m Nabra.
Marina: And we’re your hosts.
Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea, or in Arabic, shay.
Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.
Nabra: In our second season, we highlight US MENA theatremakers with an impact nationally and internationally. This season outlines the state of MENA theatre today through the lens of multigenerational and multidisciplinary artists.
Marina: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.
MENA artists continue to work hard to create representation in large theatrical arenas by pushing for their work to be produced on contemporary stages. However, since some major theatres only allot one or two slots a year for plays by BIPOC artists and MENA artists have frequently been ignored, they have found other ways to create thriving artistic spaces for actors, directors, and playwrights alike. Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi has created a space for MENA artist to thrive. This artist-led organizational infrastructure serves as an example of how change can be made within existing theatrical structures. Today, we are joined by Raymond Bobgan and Omar Kurdi. Let’s introduce our guests.
Raymond Bobgan creates new performances that are bold, multi-layered and highly physical through an ever-evolving ensemble process. Raymond’s work has been seen in Romania, Brazil, Denmark, Serbia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Canada and has been featured in American Theatre magazine, Canadian Theatre Review, Theatre Journal, and in Lisa Wolford’s book, Grotowski's Objective Drama Research. Raymond has created many works for Cleveland Public Theatre as their artistic director, including Dream Rust Workshop (a hypothesis project), and Kennedy Center’s Arts Around America, Frankenstein’s Wake, Feefer Rising, Rusted Heart Broadcast, Insomnia: The Waking of Herselves, and Blue Sky Transmission, a Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Raymond initiated the formation of Teatro Público de Cleveland, Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, and Station Hope. He founded the Student Theatre Enrichment Program and co-created the Y-Haven Theatre Project. Raymond’s research and creation group, Cleveland CORE Ensemble, created multiple Zoom shows, live movies, and hybrid performances during COVID-19 as part of the Hypothesis Exploration Project. He was the first recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize in the discipline of theatre. He is a two-time winner of the Creative Workforce Fellowship and a recipient of the Ohio Arts Council Fellowship. He is an alumnus of the Theatre Communications Group’s Early Career Development Program for Directors and of the National Theatre Artist Residency Program.
Nabra: Omar Kurdi is a theatre artist and writing enthusiast and founded Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, a theatre company within the Cleveland Public Theatre that aims to connect Arabic speaking communities in Cleveland. He currently serves as a member of the Cleveland Public Theatre’s board of directors and was also appointed to the community advisory board of Ideastream, the NPR and PBS affiliate in Northeast Ohio. He is also the CEO of Friends for Life Rehabilitation Services, an agency providing services to adults with developmental disabilities.
He is of Jordanian American descent and is from Cleveland, Ohio. Kurdi holds a master’s degree in public administration from Indiana Wesleyan University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Cleveland State University. In August 2020 Crain’s Cleveland Business Magazine named Kurdi as a notable immigrant leader, and in October of 2020, the Arab American Foundation selected him as one of their 40 under 40 Arab Americans recipients.
Marina: Amazing. Thank you both for joining us today.
Raymond Bobgan: Oh, thank you so much.
Omar Kurdi: Thank you.
Raymond: Honored to be here.
Nabra: It is so great to have you both here. I have been just thrilled ever since I learned about Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, and this beautiful partnership between a regional theatre and grassroots theatre and local community. So I would love for you just to introduce the mission of Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, how it connects to CPT, and why you started it in general.
Raymond: Cleveland Public Theatre, maybe we’re not quite a regional theatre. We might be a little smaller. We’re not LORT, but we’re a mid-size theatre, and our mission is to nurture compassion and raise consciousness through groundbreaking performance and life changing education programs. And just because of where we’re at geographically and the history of the organization of being a social justice organization, not only before that was cool but back in the day when it hurt you on the finance side, we have a lot of connections and community that are just very natural and organic. And when I came into the leadership role, I realized... I was trying to plan my first season, and I was just so shocked because Cleveland is home to the nation’s oldest Black theatre, Karamu House. It’s an amazing place. And so because of that, when we go to audition plays, there’s a lot of Black people and a lot of white people. And as I began to think about the playwrights that I wanted to produce, I couldn’t cast those plays, and yet I’m in a neighborhood that’s at least 30% Latinx. And although I can’t give you the exact numbers, there’s a mosque three blocks down the road, and if you just go a little farther, there’s going to be five halal grocery stores.
And so you’re just like, “This doesn't feel right.” And so we started this effort. We had a lot of connections naturally in the Latinx community that were very organic and had developed over time, and so we started and we created a company called Teatro Público de Cleveland. But during that whole time, because of my own background, I kept thinking (and at that time we were using the word MENASA) we were looking to start a MENASA company. And we did a lot of research, and I started connecting to community. Now, for me, that means it’s going to take me three years maybe to really forge the kinds of relationships and understandings before I’m going to launch some big project. So we did some preliminary projects. We did a play that was written by an Arab writer. We did a few things like that just to start building some momentum. Ultimately, we brought together a committee, and I traveled to different companies like Noor and Golden Thread and Silk Road (Rising).
So I come in and I’m like, “This is going to be broadly inclusive, et cetera, et cetera,” and the group was like, “No, it’s not. That is not why we’re here. You’ve brought us here into this room. We’re here because we want to hear our language spoken on stage. It’s that simple.” And that was a little shocking for me. I’m not from a community that’s connected to the Arabic language, and so I was like, “Okay, now I’m not part of the community anymore. So what does that mean, and how is that going to play out?” But I also inherently understood that, one, this is what the different communities we were connecting to wanted and certainly deserved. And the second thing was just that sense... Early on, I met this amazing man Issam Zaim, and he’s a volunteer at CARE. The first time he met me, he said, “I’m fighting for the rights of Muslims, and that means I’m fighting for your rights, Raymond, because you look Muslim.” And I said, “Okay, well, we’re not going to unpack that right now, but there is just this sense that there is a lot shared. And I’m going to respond first to what the people in the room need and what they deserve.” And that’s how the group formed, I guess.
Nabra: That’s so wonderful. What a great origin story that is so connected to community engagement and really positive practices. Omar, when did you join this? You were there right at the beginning, and what was your role in all of this?
Omar: I have a very funny story to share. Raymond talked about the three years that he took to get the community together, so I was getting all these emails from this guy. His name is Raymond. And I never had the time to go to these meetings. That was around the time that my dad was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, so he was dying. I was really busy with work. It happened that in February of 2018, which is almost near the time before we launched Masrah, a friend of mine who was on the committee, put me and Raymond in an email, so I’m like, “Oh God, I’m stuck now. I have to respond.” So Raymond extends this invitation to me to go attend this meeting, and I am so happy that I did. First of all, that meeting was so monumental for me. I’ve never seen so many different Arabs in one room, different age groups. Second, that was the meeting where we decided on the name Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, so it was very meaningful to me. And third, I did not know that that meeting was going to be the beginning of a healing journey that I was going to take on later after my dad passed away.
So I became a member of the advisory committee in February. We launched Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi in July of 2018, thirty-one days after my dad passed. And I remember I texted Raymond. I was like, “I feel like I want to cancel. I can’t—” I was going to do a performance. But then I decided that I’d rather perform something for my dad instead, and I’m so happy that I did. And I became an artist at the same time, and I’m so happy that I did. Theatre, in general, for me, is a wonderful form of expression, a wonderful platform for representation. And Masrah is more than just an artistic group. It really is a medium to tell our stories. For so long, our narrative has been owned by mainstream media and people that don’t look like us or speak our language or have lived the stories that we’ve lived, and I will forever be in debt to Raymond and Cleveland Public Theatre for giving us and giving my community this platform.
And later on, I became a member of the CPT Board of Directors. I hope that I am a champion for my community on that board, and I am, again, grateful for the board for choosing me to be on there. So many different roles with CPT and with Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, but in the end, like Raymond said, we have a mission. We have a goal. We’re part of a community, and I am there to fulfill that mission, whether with my community or the Cleveland community at large. And I’m very grateful for CPT for allowing me to do that.
Raymond: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of interesting language of deference of us allowing you, Omar. Come on, it’s your theatre. And I think that’s one of the things that we really are fighting against. Just the years, I think even for myself, just living under a whole set of the systems that are in place, but even this idea Omar just said, “And now I’m an artist,” but he was an artist way before. Writing poetry has been part of his life. Singing has been part of his life, and also I believe all people are artists. And I think this distinction that I think has been made over and over again, and I understand why the distinction began, or I have some sense of this idea of amateur or professional, is really, I think, real oppressive, really an oppressive model.
And so this idea, even, words like, “Oh, well this is like a community theatre.” There’s a lot of narrative there that’s actually happening that’s packed inside of this idea, professional versus amateur, or community versus having a regional impact. And I think it’s something that I’m caught up in personally, so I’m not saying, “Oh, we’ve freed ourselves from this.” But it’s something that we keep interrogating and challenging. And that’s been one of the ways that the theatre’s been so changed by companies like Teatro Público and Masrah. It’s changed who we are and how we think about our art. So it’s us who are so glad that you’ve come to our stage.
Omar: Thank you. And I think, for me, it’s that meaningful because in our culture, we’re obviously the Arab culture is very rich with art and music and poetry and all of that, but family always comes first. And that’s a topic that we’ve discussed in some of our performances. It’s not always celebrated within families that a child or a son or a daughter of an Arab man and a woman or any kind of family is pursuing art. And again, that’s why I bring up this healing journey, because had my dad been alive, I wouldn’t have been part of Masrah. And as much as I love him, but he was never a fan of the…even the idea of me ever becoming an entertainer or a performer. It was always… I felt suppressed, which is why I’m so grateful for Masrah.
I know a lot of members of my community share that same feeling and that’s why we’re... I know Raymond is grateful for us. He reminds me of that all the time. That’s why I’m grateful for him because he’s always there for us as well. But that’s why it was so monumental for us, to see artists from an Arab background go on stage, it’s big. And it definitely, I feel like, had a very big impact, not just in Cleveland, but even outside of Cleveland or we wouldn’t be here in this podcast with you guys.
Marina: Yeah. There’s so much there and I’m hoping that we can...we’ll come back around to some of the threads that you’ve brought up. But since starting the company in 2018, you’ve been talking about narratives and stories in the narratives that you’re putting on stage. And also just the narrative of what it means to be someone who’s now performing on stage in different ways and the stereotypes and challenges that you come up against in that way. I’m curious, I think for the first part is, what kinds of productions have you been staging? What are some of the projects that you’ve worked on since 2018? And also how have they been received? So how has the community been taking and seeing what you’re putting on stage?
Raymond: I want to hear from you.
Omar: Me? Okay.
Raymond: What stories have we been putting on today?
Omar: Again, I have to go back to how Raymond puts things together. So obviously we all know—and if you don’t know and you’re listening, you’re about to know how brilliant this man is, Raymond Bobgan.
Raymond: That’ll be edited out, I hope. Thank you.
Nabra: We’re not editing that out.
Omar: No, no, no. Raymond, and I also have to mention Faye Hargate, who was the director of Community Ensembles at Cleveland Public Theatre. After the launching event in July, we started free workshops for the community to come in and do storytelling. I believe we did 6 or 8 workshops in September of 2018, and different community members came. It wasn’t the same people every time. But towards the end of the workshop, we were able to finally have a core group.
But basically Raymond would literally just sit there, and Faye, and record these stories and absorb what’s going on. And mind you, some of the stories were told in Arabic. We had to translate later, but Raymond picked up on our responses to these stories. So he knew what these things sort of meant. So when we decided putting together for our first production for the fall of 2018, we sat there, and Raymond started re-sharing some of the stories we told. We told them a different way. He did exercises, where we started writing our own scenes in our own words. And then we would perform them. There were some improvisations that ended up becoming scenes in the show.
And the collective idea was… I’m like, “Okay, we’re here, we’re Arab Americans, but what is home? What does home mean to me? What does home mean to my fellow cast members?” We were eight from Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. We all had that same feeling like, “We don’t know. Where is home? Is home here or is home there?” So that gave us the general umbrella. And then Raymond put some of our stories together in different scenes, him and Faye. And then he definitely allowed us to have a part. I know he hates the word “allowed,” but he gave us the opportunity to decide on how scenes were going to be. We definitely had the say with costumes, everything. Authenticity really meant the world to Raymond and Faye, so everything had to be true to what we feel.
I remember, we changed the ending literally two days before the opening night. Raymond definitely was like, “Okay guys, if you don’t feel this is it, we’re going to do it.” So we kept working on it, working on it, working on it. Literally two days before the show, we had our ending, which was very powerful. We performed in 30 November. I’ll never forget that day, 30 November 2018. That was our opening night. We had a show after the second day, 1 December. And then the demand was so great that people were like, “We need more; we need more.” So we ended up performing that same show, an upgraded version, a world premiere in April.
Raymond: I think in the theatre speak, we would say it’s devised theatre, but that means a bazillion different things. But I think the interesting thing for me, one of the other powerful strands that kept coming through inside the conversations, really had to do with this struggle. I think, maybe any immigrant might be feeling this, but that these things that you’re almost guilty that you don’t have to be part of anymore. And yet at the same time, the things that you really deeply miss. And just having a place where those things can be talked about frankly, and even in a small group, but then widening that group, I think was... Again, there are these things inside of our cultures that don’t allow us to even be honest with ourselves.
I think that was the thing I was really so impressed with was the bravery of the conversation. I don’t want to say someone was like anti-wajib, but it was like—I hope I’m saying that right. But it was really saying, “It’s too much.” I’m so glad that when I’m in the United States, every day I don’t have a family event with my second cousin’s best friend. And so being able to say that and share that was beautiful, but also being able to say, “Oh my God, this is the third day I got fast food on my way home. Who have I become?” And it’s those two things in combination, I think that were really powerful in the first play.
The second play involved a lot of different strands, but started from this real... There’s something inside… There’s the advisory committee, which includes the artists, but also includes a lot of important people in our community and leaders, doctors, the publisher of the Arabic language newspaper, things like this. There began to be a real divide there. One of the things was someone said, “When we’re in the United States, we don’t talk about our countries of [origin’s] politics.” And of course, then all the people who were in the cast and the artists were like, “Yes, we will.” Anything that one side of the table says, we’re not going to talk about this, the other side says, “Yes, we will.” We had this very frank scene about, that was a true story from Lebanon, about a time in which people from, I guess, four different faith groups ended up having to shelter in the same village and how it transformed the individuals there.
And then what happens after that? And how this powerful experience just dissipates, as many immigrate to the United States, others are fighting poverty in that country. So one of the big things that just keeps coming back in the company, and I think came back this last summer when we did a piece coming out of COVID, is the sense of being grateful to be in the United States for a lot of reasons, being sad to be in the United States, and then—I guess the only word I have for it, it’s a bad word—is a guilt or a responsibility of when the explosion happens in Lebanon and just saying, “How can I be here when this is happening?” And it’s so powerful, the care and the love of home, of that home country. Something I just think, it’s so special to share that cross-community.
Nabra: I love also that you’re sharing these stories in Arabic. Marina has told me and other people have told me that when I speak Arabic, my whole personality changes, and the way I move my body changes. The way I move my hands change. And so there is a way that if you’re telling these... It opens up the ability to tell these very deeply cultural and deeply personal and familial stories in a way that feels more true to us. It’s so beautiful that this space naturally became a space in which you’re telling these stories, but you’re also telling it in Arabic. And that you committed to telling these stories in Arabic with the name on that first meeting, which is really beautiful.
Raymond: Well, it’s so important. There’s a prominent lawyer here in town who was sitting in the front row of the first production. And within the first minute, he’s just weeping. And afterwards, I was like, “Hey, are you okay? Blah, blah, blah.” He says, “You don’t know what it’s like. I’ve been in the United States since I was a teenager. This is the first time I’ve been in a place where on stage someone is speaking my language.” It’s so important.
Nabra: And I hate to ask, but I must, do you subtitle these or have a description in English? How do you bring in folks who are not Arabic speakers?
Raymond: So it goes both ways, because not all of the people in the company necessarily are fluent Arabic speakers. Everything is translated. We use supertitles, and they go both directions. Lots of technical challenges. The first six months of this project was just learning that Microsoft and every email, whatever, does not... It accepts left to right or right to left, but not going back and forth. This is just not supported... And again, it’s interesting how systems get put in place to just prevent. But that was really challenging.
The original translations… and then you’re like, “Okay, we’re supertitle(ing). So then one person’s translating and they’re like, “You can’t do that. This is classical Arabic. That’s not what they’re speaking. You can’t translate… This is like they’re speaking in whatever they’re speaking in, Levantine, and then suddenly the translation from the English is in classical.” There’s just so many discussions and arguments. And that was really actually a fun part, but it can be very nerve-wracking for the producer. One of the advisory committee members says, “Who did these horrible translations?” And I’m like, “Actually, let’s roll back. Why are they horrible?” “Well, the grammar’s not right.” I’m like, “But the grammar in the English isn’t right. Come on, help us out here. This is theatre.”
Marina: Thank you for mentioning that. Because I am learning Fusha, but I was like, “what if the person is speaking in dialect? What is that experience?” So, really interesting things to consider.
Nabra: Something that I’ve noticed, I’ve been going to a lot of Arabic language groups on meet up online and in-person here in Seattle. For some reason, I’m usually the only Egyptian Arabic speaker. And there’s people from all over, different dialects. Egyptians, we’re famously stubborn when it comes to our Arabic and don’t learn any dialects and expect everyone to understand us. But what ends up happening is that everyone ends up translating for each other, into our different dialects. I’ve started to get to know, understand some dialects better now. But it’s also this—I’m sure that you’re also experiencing this— cross-cultural exchange, even within that, due to the use of the language, just having to understand each other and then figure out again these systems of how to translate that for each other and also for greater audiences.
Raymond: It’s true. I also just want to share this, speaking of translation, a member of Teatro Público brought an elder grandparent to see the play. And so, this is a person who speaks neither English nor Arabic; they’re from Central America. And the person afterwards, they’re so into the play. They’re weeping afterwards. They need to meet all the actors. And I’m getting translation from the member of Teatro Público. And they said, “Yes, they said they understood everything.” So, there’s also that piece. There is the twenty minutes that it took us to translate the word, “watermelon” from, I guess it would be Gulf Arabic, so that everyone else knew what it was. So, that was a challenge. But then there’s these moments where translation’s not needed anymore. We all know what’s happening.
Nabra: And I wonder also, Omar, if you can speak to how this has related to community-building for you in Cleveland. It sounds like CPT slowly brought together this community that created Masrah. But I wonder, what was the Arab community like for you in Cleveland? And was this the group of folks you already knew that came together and put together Masrah, or did it end up creating its own community?
Omar: We do have a big Arab American community in Cleveland and from many different countries. And then, we’re talking about first, second, and third, and even fourth generation Arab Americans. I believe that the first group of Syrians arrived to Cleveland sometime in the 1800s. So, we’re talking about a rooted existence of the Arab community in Cleveland. And obviously, the community did do different artistic and cultural events, but never something related to theatre or never related to actual members of the community going on stage to perform in Arabic and in English, obviously. I did not know anyone who became a cast member in our first production, let’s say because, obviously, we had more people join later. I knew of one person, but we were never friends. The rest, I knew nobody. I barely knew any Iraqis in Cleveland.
And then I met two amazing gentlemen who became part of our group, from Iraq. So, it definitely created a community of its own. And the Masrah community sort of projected on the larger community, I feel, honestly. If you looked at the audiences that came to watch our shows, the most diverse audiences ever. We’re not only talking about Arab Americans, but we had friends of our cast members who are not even Arab Americans: members of the Latinx community, members of the African American community. It gave us that sense of allyship. I definitely believe, even though our issues are different, but they’re also similar in some sense. So, Masrah definitely became its own community, but sort of gave the larger community an umbrella. Because again, we don’t have no other place in Cleveland to actually go to tell our stories on stage. People go do their own events or rallies or protests when things happen overseas and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But we never had this channel to do things artistically or through performance. So, it definitely changed the ball game for the community.
Marina: There are just so many great things that I want to ask you both. So, we talked about translation being a challenge. I’m interested in other challenges that have come up when you start this work, because sometimes, and Raymond, you talked about interrogating the structures that exist, like why they exist, how they exist, and then how we can try to change them when we’re starting new companies or doing work in different ways when we’re reevaluating theatre as this tool that has been used. And I’m curious to know: what are some of the ways that you’ve interrogated those structures? And also, what challenges have arisen in that way? And also victories? I think that victories come up, too, as a beautiful thing here.
Raymond: Well, I think one of the things is, again, I think we talk a lot at. At least in the liberal side and anti-racism work, we talk a lot about this word “excellence.” And for me it's, how do we talk about other excellences? For example, there’s this amazing singer-storyteller, Black woman who is, in my mind, as trained, and her work is as deep as the first chair violinist at the Cleveland Orchestra. But obviously, the opportunities for her and the pay are very, very different. And so, there’s these senses of excellence. What makes excellent music? And what makes excellent theatre? And I was in a conversation once with a young Arab director and [an] Arab playwright and an Arab producer. And the conversation was about, “Can you allow non-Arabs to play Arab roles in large regional theatre productions?”
And so, the young Arab director was saying, “We must never tolerate this.” And the playwright was, “Wait, if I don’t tolerate this, my plays will never be produced. And then I’m damned to write plays about people that I am not, and I’m not creating roles for the future generation.” And the director was saying, “Well, we should just have long enough rehearsal periods that then they can be at the level of excellence.” And then the producer was, “Yeah, I don’t think you quite understand what it is to be excellent in American theatre.” And then I suddenly... there was a really heated conversation. Super heated. And I suddenly realized, the oppressor here is this idea of excellence. It’s the idea of “What makes one show so great?” And I start recalling my experiences in the theatre.
And if I think about my experience as an audience member…yeah, I got to say that some of my most powerful experiences are not at the plays that I think we in the theatre world would agree had the highest excellence. One of those just has to do with, “What is the expectation of the audience? Is the expectation of the audience that I become so lost in the play that I forget where I’m at and I’m completely shut down physically? Or am I commenting back and forth?” We create a play every year with a treatment center for homeless adults. And great, this last year, there was this moment where this guy’s been asking for money the whole play. And finally, somebody gives him ten bucks and says, “Go across the street and give me coffee and come back.” And every night, a different person yelled out from the audience, “You’ll never see him again!” And everyone laughed. For me, that’s excellence; that connection. That I know what’s happening on stage. I get this. I relate to this, and I’m ready to participate and respond. To me, that’s excellence.
And so then, if I compare that to my experience at a large regional theatre, then I’d have to say they’re not very good. Because I went there, and the whole audience was quiet most of the time. They laughed some of the time. Or, if theatre is fundamentally and essentially a local act, then being three degrees of separation from people on stage would be important. So then I’d go to the regional theatre, and I’d be, “Boy, that play sucked because I didn’t know a single person, and it sucked. What happened...?” These are the oppressive things I think I’m talking about. And I think one of the challenges is that, in spite of these wonderful things in the audience, sometimes those sensibilities become so strong, especially in immigrant communities who want to prove themselves.
So, one of the things was, “Can’t we do a play about Kahlil Gibran?” This topic kept coming up from the advisory committee because he has been authorized on some level. And also, of course, beautiful writer. And we probably will do something about that. But that sense that he has been authorized. And I think that’s been one of the challenges. And also the challenge of, “We want to tell our stories, but we also want to put our best foot forward for the broader community, so let’s be careful. Let’s not tell too many of the darker sides because we still have to impress people about our community.” So there’s that. And then, there’s still some no-go areas. And those are not because of the advisory committee. It’s everyone in the room saying, “We’re not quite ready for this. We don’t think our audience is ready to hear this.” And so, those are some real challenges. The fact that everyone’s like, “Yeah, we don’t want to be broadly inclusive; we want Arabic spoken.” I love that these different communities, when they come together, are so frank and honest, and there’s nothing held back. And I love that.
Omar: I wanted to share, I think with me as an artist, I think the biggest challenge was whether the community is going to be receptive, especially in the beginning. And with the second play production, Wa Baadaha Ittakayna (And Then We Met) we were touching on stories like whether a woman wants to take off her hijab or not or a daughter that wants to go to a different school program than what her father wants. And I remember we would have all these conversations like, “I don’t know how the community is going to receive that.” And obviously it was received well, but I do remember hearing some conversations about, “Well, she should have just worn the hijab in the end.” But then I’m, “But that’s not the story that the person told.” At the end of the day, we’re being authentic to the stories that we have. And that’s something that some members of the audience did not understand. That the stories that we’re telling on stage are our stories. So, if you want your story to be performed, we’ll be more than happy to host you and welcome you to our workshops and our sessions where we do playwriting. And so, your story could be performed as well.
So, we’re not shutting your story out. But this is what we have, so this is what we’re working with. And it definitely did better with the second production than the first production. There was a community that felt left out in the first production, but members of that community were able to join the group in the second production. So, there was better representation. And then the summer production after COVID— that I was not part of it, but members of the group did it—was also representative of different communities. So, I guess it’s a tax that the artist has to pay. And what would the audience like to see? But for me as an artist, as Omar, I don’t believe in safe art. Art is art. I want to tell what I want to tell. If a story is powerful, it’s powerful. If it’s not, it’s not. But if it resonates with me, then I should be able to do it. And that is how I look at theatre, at least me.
Raymond: Can I bring up one really complicated challenge? And I fear to even talk about it, which is why I’m going to try to force myself. Because I don’t want to say something wrong, and I probably will. And I’m always happy to learn more. One of the people, who’s involved tangentially with the company, came to me after our summer project. In the summer, we were coming back from COVID. We’re like, “We only have two weeks to rehearse. We’re going to rehearse for two weeks. We’re going to make a little fifty-minute piece. And we’re going to perform it,” because this is the first time we can perform since COVID, and we’re going to be outside and safe. And there was a lot of heartbreak because of the explosion in Lebanon and also the bombings in Palestine. So after the show, someone from the community came out to me and said, “I love the play, Raymond. But I just don’t think you needed to actually say the word ‘Gaza.’”
And this was really powerful for me in this moment. And we have an incredibly rich and diverse and varied Jewish community here and [our] Jewish community has an incredible history, in Cleveland, of overcoming racism and antisemitism. And yet, I knew from the very start that, if this was going to be viewed properly, I had to, from the very beginning, start having conversations. And I just said, “Can I come to your community advisory board? To the Jewish Community Federation?” And they welcomed me. And they’re like, “Tell us about all your theatre, and tell us about that.” And that group is incredibly supportive. But still, there are funders I’ve met with since then, and I talk about Masrah very clearly. And then they say, “Just so you know, if you ever do something against the state of Israel, I will no longer fund you.” Things like this.
And what’s painful to me about that is not that I am threatened to lose funding, but because of the incredible lack of understanding of the circumstance. What does that even mean? It’s not anti-something. I think all of our discussion is about pro-people and pro-liberation. So, that’s been a challenge, just navigating those waters and just making sure the message doesn’t get out ahead of us. But also that’s interesting, that people from Lebanon, and even Palestine, who are here want to play it safe themselves and are afraid. And just that sense of the depth and the complexity of that kind of oppression and what that means is really powerful.
Marina: I’m so glad that you bring it up because it’s true. And there’s a lot to unpack there as we always do when we talk about Palestine and what it means to conflate supporting Palestine with being antisemitic. Which obviously we’re always against antisemitism, but we’re also in support of Palestinians, especially in the United States when we’re complicit with how our tax dollars are spent and how other systems that we are part of. It’s something that I think and talk about a lot, but also, I very much hear what you’re saying because in academia, the danger that I feel is real when I talk about Palestine. And people then caution you, “Well, don’t talk about it until this period.” And it just, there are a lot of questions there, but I think that organizing and starting with communities to really create these conversations sounds like an amazing step in that direction.
Raymond: One other really sensitive challenge has to do with COVID and that is…politics. It’s been really heartbreaking for me and confusing I guess I would say that quite a number of the people that have been involved with this company are real Trump supporters. And it’s been really confusing for me to understand that and to really understand, I mean, they’re part of the company. They’re part of this, not family, but like family, something tangential to family. And we’re not going to kick someone out because of that. We want their voice here, but it can be really challenging. And then as we were coming back, we did this production outdoors and then we’re like, “Oh, we can start working on our next indoor production.” But we as a theatre decided to be vaccinated only for our artistic teams and our staff, and half the company was not vaccinated and would not become vaccinated.
It was just devastating and at a time it was so hard. It was like we just had to press pause for a moment. So that’s been really challenging of understanding that. And also like when, honestly, from my perspective, when it’s a bunch of people with a ton of privilege saying, “I don’t want to wear a mask, and I don’t want to get vaccinated,” it has one meaning. And when it’s people who have been historically excluded and oppressed are saying that, it suddenly just means something else. And how I have to respond to it is something else. And I’m not proud of how I dealt with it. I think I would do it the same, but it’s only making choices that are compromises at this point. That’s really hard.
Omar: I want to add something to that. And not that I agree with Trump or any politician, actually. At this state, I feel like we’re all being failed by everyone. And not to defend these people, but I think something that is very difficult that immigrants, especially people from the Middle East is that we sort of have to think of politics. And it’s like a bi-dimensional. So when I vote, I vote for domestic, but I also sort of vote to see what this person is going to do overseas. And that I feel like changes the game for a lot of people. I know people that vote Republican because usually they’re not going to meddle that much. But then some people vote Democrat because of another reason and another reason.
So it gets very complicated just like Raymond said. And I really appreciate someone like Raymond because he never would take something like that personal because he knows that doesn’t take away from these people. Because we know these artists. He was upset; I was upset. I was disappointed. But at the end of the day, I’ve shared so many hours. Raymond has shared… we’ve shared so many nights together. We broke bread together with these people. I definitely had the same sentiment with Raymond of like, I was like, “I don’t understand. We were supposed to do this together.”
And I was so excited when restrictions were sort of loosening up because of COVID, I’m like, “Oh my God, we’re going to get back.” I took a year break because of personal issues. So I was so ready to come back. I’m double vaccinated, and then I got the booster. I’m like, “I’m ready.” But then I’m like, “Ugh.” Members of our core group are unvaccinated, so we just had to put everything on hold. And it’s been devastating, to be honest. I kind of miss creating. This is like my venting window right now. So I really, I hope that we’ll be able to come back better and stronger hopefully to create again.
Nabra: Thank you both so much for sharing those really important and complex challenges. It also makes me think that the way in which we navigate and understand those complexities is through art. The way we actually suss out these differences is through the bond, the community, and the discussion that’s created through art, that introduces all of those different complexities through personal stories.
And so the work that this company is doing is so important that, of course, we believe that all MENA/SWANA artists are doing is so important to show all of these really different dimensions to the way that we approach our everyday lives and our politics. I would love to know, to close us out: what is the hope for the future for Masrah? Where is it now? What should we look out for? And also just for both of you as artists, what are you up to and how are you growing in this post-COVID era when we’re starting to generate again?
Raymond: Omar has published two books? Is that right?
Nabra: Oh my goodness.
Omar: Yeah, second one is in production right now. So [it’ll] be out very soon.
Marina: What are they called? Give us titles.
Omar: So the first one, it’s self-publishing obviously because those are my little dear babies. The first one’s called Delirium, you can find it on Amazon. The second one is called Pandemic, the Delirious Variant. So it’s sort of like part two, and it’s most of the work and pandemic. The second book has been written during lockdown with some stuff that I wrote before, some stuff I actually performed with CPT. So I’m very excited about that. I don’t know if I have a good idea of what’s going to happen in the future. I just really hope that I could get into rehearsal room very soon. Doesn’t matter what we’re going to do, I just hope we do something. Raymond will probably have a better answer on that. But yeah, I just hope that we’re able to create soon because I feel like we’re all coming out of this pandemic with so many experiences that need to be told.
Marina: Omar, you’re doing something tonight. Can you tell us about that? This will be past tense for people that are listening, but still they can check it out at some point.
Omar: So, yeah, so I am a co-founder of a young professionals group called Arab Americans of Cleveland Young Professionals Network. And tonight we’re hosting the first ever comedy night for local Arab American talents. So, it’s very exciting. Honestly, I woke up with the idea of not wanting to do it. I don’t mean to cut the energy, but I feel like I have to. A very prominent Palestinian journalist was murdered this morning, so we’re actually going to dedicate this show to her tonight, Shereen Abu Aqleh. And it’s just a symbol of why freedom of speech is so important, and why the truth is very important. And comedy is a form of that. I’m very excited to dedicate that night to her and to welcome members of the community to watch some Arabs pretend to be funny. We are funny.
Nabra: We’re always funny.
Raymond: I’m so sad I can’t be there. I have a show opening tonight. It’s not really a play. It’s a kind of [an], I guess, immersive theatre piece and I couldn’t possibly explain what it is on the day that I open a play. But I will say that when the audience comes in, they have to take a little workshop where they make a work of art in the first ten minutes before they walk into the immersive experience. And it’s cool because one of the members of Masrah is conducting those workshops with some other artists. And that’s been one of the cool things over this past year is how some of the artists, including Omar, have been involved with other projects that are just like Cleveland Public Theatre-wide. So it’s not just this company, but how it’s all integrating. And Cleveland Public Theatre is a place where people come together, so all the paths start crossing.
Nabra: And what’s that piece called?
Raymond: It’s called Candlelight Hypothesis Workshop. And it’s a lot about moths. So that’s why I’m wearing my moth necklace here, moth drawn to the flame. And so there’s that. I think for the company, we’re definitely starting to build a new piece. Some of that will start this summer. Hoping to have a new piece in February. Before we had thought to rebuild this previous piece. But I think so much time has passed, and I think enough of the company has changed that we’re going to start building a new piece. Of course, I’m scared and excited and thrilled about what that journey will hold. I just also wanted to give a big shout out to the Arab American Museum, which is very close to us. It’s in Detroit area in Ann Arbor—not Ann Arbor. Just outside of Detroit. And it’s just such a great... We got to perform there as well as being here, and they’re such a great organization. And they just do amazing things. So I just wanted to give them a big shout out and just say if you’re in that area to check that out. Great organization. So hopefully we’ll get to go there again.
Nabra: Well, thank you so much. And I love all the shoutouts because partnerships are the core of our survival and our ability to thrive as minoritized communities. And so, it’s so exciting to hear about this partnership. As I said, I was so thrilled when I first learned about Masrah, and it’s great to hear about how you all have developed. And we’re both really excited to learn about the future of this company, so we’ll be looking out for more. And crossing my fingers I can come to Cleveland at some point to see your work in person because everything you’ve shared, it just seems like such a unique and community-based experience which is just so brilliant. Thank you both so much for being on this podcast.
Marina: Yes. Thank you. This was amazing to hear. And also just so warm. I can’t imagine being in a rehearsal room with you both because this was warm, and we’re across screens from each other. So looking forward to everything that comes next.
Omar: We cry a lot. No, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity. Honestly, on a personal level I needed—I told Raymond earlier—with everything going on in the world, this hour that I got to spend with you guys has been a very much needed relief. So thank you. I’m very appreciative of it.
Raymond: Yeah, thanks so much. And thanks for what you do to tell these stories. So important.
Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find podcasts.
Nabra: Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.
Marina: Have an idea for an exciting podcast essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.
Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thank you for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.
Nabra and Marina: Yalla, bye!