Gathering to Define Community

On the National Convening for Artists of Middle Eastern, North African, and Southwest Asian Descent

What sparks a national movement? I imagine the seed for any large-scale group endeavor on a mission is often planted quietly, in conversation and among friends, when a person can express their hope for something beyond the status quo. Perhaps it is in those personal exchanges that a vision is revealed. I wonder if it’s then that community arises—not as something new, but as the collective illuminated.

The national movement of Middle Eastern, North African, Southwest Asian (MENASA) American theatre artists has been building for some time. In 2013, Jamil Khoury, founding artistic director of Silk Road Rising in Chicago, wrote an impassioned love letter, “Towards an Arab American Theater Movement,” on his hope for a visible and vibrant community, where stories from Arabs and others with roots in our region are woven into the fabric of storytelling in America. Later, Catherine Coray, the Lebanese American curator, educator, and director of the Lark’s Middle East/United States Playwright Exchange—who has worked to create opportunities for international artists to develop new plays, often in translation—curated In the Same Room: Middle Eastern Women in Theatre in 2014 and the Middle East Convening in 2016.

Meanwhile, in the literary world, Dr. Malek Najjar was developing a body of work focused on a critical study and anthology of plays devoted to Arab American drama. Then, in 2017, two seminal documents—an open letter and a bill of rights—were penned by Yeghiazarian and Khoury as a result of three convenings of Middle Eastern American theatre artists. These were just some of the most pivotal moments in a movement towards defining our community.

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Torange Yeghiazarian, Founding Artistic Director of Golden Thread Productions, the first American theatre company devoted to the Middle East.

Resetting the American Stage

All these years of advocacy, creative work, and community building coalesced into the National Convening of MENA Theatre Artists, which took place one weekend last November at San Francisco’s Potrero Stage. (Check out the archive of selected events here.) There, artists who identified as of Middle Eastern, North African, and Southwest Asian descent—an often vilified and marginalized community—gathered from across the United States, formalizing years of conversations that had been happening in theatres, over coffee, via Skype and Zoom, and in small conferences and private meetings. One acknowledgment made early on was that the term “MENA”—which we had used in our event and programming language—might be excluding people within our community, so we began referring to our community as “MENASA.”

The goal of the convening was simple: come together and identify ways to bring MENASA artists to the forefront of theatres within the United States. What kind of organization would we want to build for ourselves so we could thrive in this industry, supporting each other and advocating for ourselves? Yussef El Guindi, an Egyptian American playwright and member of the steering committee, felt like the gathering was a vital next step in the movement of MENASA artists. “We have been repeatedly—and frankly offensively—ignored,” he said. “It’s powerful to start creating the organizational infrastructure that might correct that.”

I imagine the seed for any large-scale group endeavor on a mission is often planted quietly, in conversation and among friends, when a person can express their hope for something beyond the status quo.

The weekend included an introduction to the seventeen-member volunteer steering committee, which I am part of, that worked behind the scenes to bring together this community of over seventy artists, art administrators, educators, producers, and directors. The conference comprised panel discussions, steering committee work sessions, roundtable conversations, and coalition-building opportunities, all geared towards the support of MENASA artists. It was programmed in conjunction with Golden Thread’s ReOrient Festival. Golden Thread, founded in 1996 by Torange Yeghiazarian, was the first theatre company in the United States devoted to the Middle East and one of the key companies to lead the charge for the national convening.

Prior to the convening, the steering committee had gathered information through discussions and a nationwide survey about the biggest challenges facing MENASA artists. Based on the feedback from the survey, we identified five goals we wanted the new organization to work towards:

  • Ensuring more MENASA plays are produced at major theatres
  • Developing a greater national visibility for MENASA artists
  • Creating a network for MENASA communities
  • Gaining more seats at the leadership level to amplify MENASA voices and create impact in season planning
  • Increasing access to funding for MENASA artists

These five goals became the catalysts for the five facilitated conversations during the conference. Over the course of the weekend, we talked about what type of organization we were building as well as some challenges we faced as a community. We also began exploring how to weave our stories into the fabric of theatre in the United States: from university theatre programs to representation in leadership circles to having our artists and their work reflected and included in every regional theatre’s season announcement and beyond. It was clear to all of us that something big was happening.

Visibility, Dialogue, and Representation

Day one opened with an overview of the weekend, facilitated by Yeghiazarian, and centered on how we could begin to build a MENASA theatre artists coalition. This forum contextualized our current efforts to organize and allowed us to discuss strategy on what we learned in the survey and the primary goals identified. On top of this, the floor was open to all attendees to ask questions and share ideas around making our work more visible on stages in the United States.

The first conversation was titled “More MENA Plays on US Stages.” “The struggle to be well represented in the collective stories a nation tells about itself and its people is a matter of survival,” said El Guindi. “If you don’t often appear in these collective stories then you as an individual, and as a group, are non-entities.” As he pointed out, the lack of representation or misinterpretation conveys a message in itself. “If other marginalized groups struggled to get their foot in the door,” he noted, “we [MENASA artists] were ghosts in the room. We were unnamed, passed over, or erased.”

After an initial briefing on the subject by co-presenters Yeghiazarian and Kate Moore Heaney, who is also part of the steering committee and is the artistic producer of New York’s Noor Theatre, the community was invited to break into smaller groups to explore what strategies could be identified to bring MENASA artists center stage. Ideas included bringing awareness to our work by inviting theatre critics into the creative process, developing more key relationships with artistic directors at regional theatres to impact season planning, developing new voices by creating more MENASA writer workshops, and supporting avenues that help embrace cultural consultancy for our stories—a frequently named deterrent for why theatres are wary of producing our work.

Next, Roberta Levitow, co-founder and director of Theatre Without Borders, led a roundtable conversation called “Artistic and Administrative Mentorship in the MENA Community.” This session began with an intergenerational conversation with eight leading artists who shared their personal insights in the field. It also provided an opportunity to articulate ways in which the Middle Eastern landscape in theatre is evolving and continued strategies for increasing the dialogue between established and emerging MENASA artists.

“If other marginalized groups struggled to get their foot in the door,” [El Guindi] noted, “we [MENASA artists] were ghosts in the room.”

Later on, we gathered for a conversation titled “MENA in the Academy: How Can Academics and Practitioners Partner to Increase MENA Productions and Publications in Academia?” organized by Coray and Najjar, and facilitated by Roberto Varea, director of theatre at University of San Francisco. In the traditional university theatre system, there has been little room for MENASA playwrights in the United States canon, leading to a lack of representation of MENASA writers, directors, actors, and designers. Some questions this panel explored were: Why aren’t our playwrights regularly taught in university curricula? Why aren’t more academic theatre programs including our works in their seasons? How can theatre and performance studies scholars create more books, essays, dissertations, and other publications focused on our work?

As we wrestled to find answers to these questions, Debórah Eliezer, a steering committee member and theatremaker with Iraqi, Israeli, and American roots, shared her sentiments. “Our story is part of the fabric of the American narrative. As refugees, cultural hybrids, and United States–born citizens, we all turn our gaze to the East to help define our identity,” she said. “What is it to claim this place as MENA-identified? How are theatremakers uniquely qualified to forge alliances using our art?” This was one of our hopes for the convening—that the questions we asked would inspire deeper questions within us.

In terms of how to define the organization, each breakout group wrote a list of priorities for what they would like to see from it. Ideas included how the organization should embody an antiracist structure, ways we could recognize colonial structures and white supremacy in American theatre, and ways we should work to address and dismantle these systems and their impacts both within our community and outside of it.

Finally, steering committee members Leila Buck, a Lebanese American playwright, actor, and educator, and Tracy Francis, an Egyptian American director and artistic producer of Boom Arts, led a conversation called Naming & Defining Our Coalition. As we had spent so much time building out our strategies, we knew we needed a name to call the organizing group that would lead us forward. What name would we claim and how would it impact our connection and representation? The term “Middle Eastern” has long been considered problematic as it stems from a colonial placement of Europe at the center of the world. And yet it has become the most commonly used term to describe our community. Did we want to name ourselves by region, culture, tradition, or other shared connections? As we brainstormed, we also questioned who was being excluded.

How can we define our complex relationships to culture and geography (…) while still advocating, supporting, and illuminating a marginalized community of artists?

A Call to Action

The weekend was full of deeply inspiring conversations and shared discoveries, and yet we were left with more questions than answers. Notably: How can we define our complex relationships to culture and geography, especially within a United States–based context, while still advocating, supporting, and illuminating a marginalized community of artists?

At the end of the convening, members of the steering committee gathered to synthesize the discoveries into a call to action for this new organization. We identified options for naming our group and made a plan to invite the broader community to weigh in on our working draft with next steps. By the end of the day, the steering committee worked to begin the process of identifying ourselves (broadly and inclusively) and drafted a mission statement to share for feedback with the greater community.

Proposed Mission Statement
Our vision is to amplify our voices, increase our access to resources, and impact/expand how stories from and about our communities are told on stages in the United States. We do this through community building, professional development, and advocacy.

Who We Are
We are an alliance of theater makers working in the United States with roots in Southwest Asia, North Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, parts of the Mediterranean, and our diasporic communities. We broadly and inclusively embrace a multiplicity of ethnicities, traditions, languages, and faiths. We are committed to honoring our differences, recognizing our interconnectedness, and working together.

We welcome theater makers of all disciplines and practices, from traditional to contemporary.

We include and welcome people of all races, ages, abilities, sexual orientations, genders, gender identities, socioeconomic statuses, citizenship statuses, and religions. We are committed to antiracist decolonizing practices.

At the end of the convening, Moore Heaney integrated the steering committee’s feedback and discussions into a second survey specifically about naming the organization, which was sent to artists of MENASA descent across the country. Based on the responses, the steering committee will determine the name that works best for the majority of the community and move forward with a mission, website, and a plan for next steps in defining our movement.

The seeds of this movement began slowly and with a few key players. But its ability to sustain itself will take a village. As we continue to organize, we invite other MENASA artists to be part of the movement. If you are a theatremaker working in the United States with roots in Southwest Asia, North Africa, Central Asia, the Caucasus, parts of the Mediterranean, and our diasporic communities and want to be part of the movement, you can get involved. If we can join together and recognize our collective voice, we can mobilize as a community to have an impact on the industry. The time has come to change the narrative and influence what stories take center stage.

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