The MENA Theatre Movement Today

With Lameece Issaq, Torange Yeghiazarian, and Jamil Khoury

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: This season, we’ll be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. 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: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.

In today’s episode, we are so excited to talk about coalition-building with three of the key MENA theatre leaders in the United States: Torange Yeghiazarian of Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, Jamil Khoury of Silk Road Rising in Chicago, and Lameece Issaq of Noor Theatre in New York.

Torange Yeghiazarian, a playwright, director, and translator, is the founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions in San Francisco, the first American theatre company focused on the Middle East.

Torange is one of Theatre Communication Group’s (TCG) Legacy Leaders of Color and has been honored by Theatre Bay Area, the Cairo International Theatre Festival, and the Symposium on Equity in the Entertainment Industry at Stanford University. A playwright, director, and translator, born in Iran and of Armenian heritage, Torange holds a master’s degree in theatre arts from San Francisco State University.

Marina: Jamil Khoury is the co-founder and co–executive artistic director of Silk Road Rising in Chicago, an art-making and art service organization that shapes conversations about Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim Americans. A theatre producer, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker, Khoury’s work focuses on Middle Eastern themes and questions of diaspora. He’s particularly interested in the intersections of culture, national identity, religion, and belonging. Khoury and his husband, Malik Gillani, created Silk Road Rising as a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. They use storytelling to counter racist and xenophobic beliefs and to expand representation of Silk Road peoples.

Nabra: Lameece Issaq is an award-winning actor and writer, and founding artistic director of the Obie-winning company Noor Theatre, dedicated to the work of theatre artists of Middle Eastern descent. Lameece has appeared in several regional and Off-Broadway theatre productions, including The Fever Chart and Stuff Happens at the Public Theatre, The Black Eyed at New York Theatre Workshop, and Noura at the Old Globe, among others. As a playwright, she’s written various short plays produced in the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, as well as Noor and Hadi Go to Hogwarts and Nooha’s List, part of the compilation play, Motherhood Out Loud.

Her full-length play Food and Fadwa, a 2011 recipient of the Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award, premiered Off-Broadway at New York Theatre workshop, a production she co-produced and starred in. She also co-wrote the feature film Abe directed by Fernando Grostein and starring Stranger Things’ Noah Schnapp, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. She’s currently developing her solo play, A Good Day To Me, Not To You, a fictionalized story based on her time living in a woman’s rooming house run by nuns in New York City.

Lameece is a member of the Dramatists Guild, AEA, and SAG-AFTRA, and is a 2016 NYFA finalist in playwriting and screenwriting.

Marina: Perfect, we are so excited to have all three of you with us today. Thank you so much for joining us.

Jamil Khoury: Thank you.

Lameece Issaq: It’s great to be here.

Torange Yeghiazarian: Thank you for having us.

Marina: We have so many questions and we’re excited to be in the room with three people that are just really special in the work that we do, and also, I think, been instrumental to us in our careers as well. We’ve been influenced by some other conversations that you’ve had and some of our questions utilize quotes from other panels as jumping off points, but we’re just excited to be in conversation with you, so we’ll see where the conversation leads us.

But my first question really jumps in with coalition building, which is something that has been talked about a lot recently and I think can continue to be talked about more. My first question is: What is the process of, or what was the process of, forming MENATMA? Which is the MENA Theatre Makers Alliance.

Torange: Jamil, do you want to…

Jamil: I think MENATMA grew out of a very long process, so convenings, readings, conversations, play development, all of us getting to know each other over several years, TCG conferences. The Lark, of course, played a really wonderful role, and the need to coalesce around a structure and around a set of relationships that really had been percolating and deepening. Also, I would add a sense of urgency to really bring forth MENA voices, SWANA voices, in the American theatre and to create that space where we could take risks, where we could experiment, where we could define our stories on our own terms, and where we weren’t always on the defensive or somehow playing defense to this accusation or this portrayal or these set of assumptions.

I think it was so grounded in empowerment and, really, that knowledge that if we didn’t tell our stories, and if we didn’t somehow control the telling of the stories, they either wouldn’t be told or they would be told very poorly. I think that it’s a coalition whose time had come, but it really has manifested in many different coalitions. Whether there is the singular umbrella of MENATMA, which is wonderful and absolutely necessary, or the multiple umbrellas that we find ourselves operating under at any given time. But really, that sense of solidarity and that sense of collaboration.

Torange: Yeah, the only thing I would add to that is that it became clear that we need a unified national voice. Other agencies were looking for national representation and it was unclear who they should be talking to. We understood that the tide is turning in terms of funding and that our community would be at greater advantage if we had a national advocacy organization that could obviously advocate for us but also represent us as a national community. Which is one of the things that MENATMA is doing.

Lameece: I think too, we all sort of engaged in addressing problematic issues within our industry. All three of our organizations, at one point or another, were dealing head-on with institutions or structures that were causing harm, or that were either misrepresenting or not properly representing our community, and so everybody was stepping forward and creating conversation, calling out, calling in, writing letters.

We would find ourselves on email chains and talking to these people, talking to each other, and it sort of became so evident that we needed an organized unified presence, a place where we could come together and say, “This thing is going on at this theatre company. This problematic thing is happening here. Oh, we want to center these voices.” We have somewhere that we can put it. It does save energy because we’re not just repeating ourselves. Everybody’s putting their thoughts and feelings together in a sort of unified articulate way. It’s really exciting. We should probably say what MENATMA stands for.

Torange: Middle East and North African Theatre Makers Alliance, menatheatremakers.org.

Nabra: This really sounds like it was really the natural culmination of a lot of conversations, a lot of work happening over a long period of time, and I really only was introduced to it at the very— Right when MENATMA was really coming together as an official organization and when the website dropped it officially felt like there was so much momentum behind it and it was so exciting. I’ve heard you, Torange, about looking to other coalition-building movements that have been around for longer, because there are a lot of coalition building nationally in the US.

I remember that, in the MENA convening as part of ReOrient 2019, which was kind of right before this all launched, there were representatives from CAATA, the Consortium of Asian American Theatres and Artists, the Latinx Theatre Commons, and the Black Theatre Association who spoke on a panel alongside the MENA steering committee members. What other coalition-building movements have you been looking to in this process and what can we learn from them as well as from your learnings in this process regarding strategies and challenges moving forward with this coalition building?

Torange: Well, I should mention that we also reached out to local Indigenous communities and had a representative kind of kickoff that conversation. The Indigenous community in the Bay Area is an important community, one that Golden Thread has reached out to during the pandemic to build a stronger relationship with. But I mean, in terms of coalition-building, I think there are those coalitions that, or partners that, are along sort of identity/community-identity lines, and then there are those partners that along aesthetic and artistic practice lines, and then along education… For example, Atha is an organization that we want to be working with closely to impact curriculum, universities, and also the quality of conversations that are happening at academic conferences.

I think the idea is that we want to build a network of allies nationally and internationally, because obviously we are a diaspora community and we want to connect with other diaspora communities as well as artists communities within the Middle East. So, we need academic partners, we need political partners, we need artistic partners, and all of those will be under this umbrella of all the multiple coalitions that support each other.

Jamil: I think that idea of walking on shoulders and being… I don’t know if “beholden” is the right word, but certainly that sense of gratitude that so many of us feel toward the African American theatre movement, Latinx theatre movement, Indigenous theatremakers and so forth, who fought any number of battles before we started to coalesce as a movement. We benefit from their struggles and what we learn and how we have been inspired by strategies, by processes, and just the theorizing that took place within the theatre.

I also think that we stepped into fairly unknown territory as Middle Easterners or Southwest Asians and North Africans, this idea that Arabs, and Persians, and Turks, and Kurds, and Israelis, and Armenians, and so forth, could come together around a shared identity or a shared identity politic. It had been very contested for any number of reasons in various arenas for a long time. Is that even possible? So many of us are not supposed to like each other, and we are somehow at odds with one another’s narratives.

There is something so radical, in my mind, and so beautiful to these spaces where people who share regional backgrounds can find the connections between those backgrounds—be that cultural, historical, religious social, so forth—and all, of course, united by theatremaking by storytelling. I think that puts us ahead of so many of our compatriots, if you will, in the individual, often siloed, MENA communities.

Lameece: That’s so beautifully said. We’re often given the responsibility or we often take on the responsibility to show that this is not a monolithic community, because so many people will lump us all into one category. I think the benefit of having organizations like ours and coalitions is to be able to sort of center different voices within those communities and say, Okay, we don’t all have the same exact story here, folks.

Just sort of piggybacking on what you’re saying, Jamil and Torange, about these other coalitions… We do adopt language from them, and they definitely came out and supported us in these different ways and said, well, this—

I had questions at some point about something that was going at a theatre in New York a bunch of years ago, and I reached out to the Black community, the Latinx community, the Asian community, and I said, “I feel strange about this, what do you think?” And there was so much generosity and so much language given. We really are standing on their shoulders very much so.

Torange: I remember in the early days of Golden Thread when we were debating this umbrella of Middle Eastern American theatre, because we all agree that Middle East is a problematic term, and whether it was either, even, conceivable or practical to bring all these different communities together, and then I realized, you look at the Asian American community, you have people from the north and south Vietnam who were at war and committed so many atrocities, yet here in the diaspora, they sit side by side and they collaborate and they create together.

You have the Chinese and the Japanese, and there’s so much bloodshed in their mutual histories together, yet they sit together and they create together. Similarly, in the Latinx community, just Central America alone, there’s so much political upheaval and so much fighting between those countries, but here in the diaspora, they are able to sit together and collaborate and talk, and even decompress what happened and try to better understand each other. It’s actually an opportunity, and I think if we don’t take advantage of it, we’re missing out.

Jamil: I think when we talk about Asian American theatre movement—and certainly my theatre company, Silk Road Rising, has been very active within CAATA and Asian American theatre convenings, and so forth… Those connections, those very real geographic connections, and also something like the legacy of the Silk Road, where trade was occurring across Asia into Africa and, of course, the exchange of stories, and how can we tap into that in a twenty-first-century diasporic way so that we can leverage those connections and we can leverage those relationships so that it strengthens all of us.

And we can look at paradigms that are not about European colonialism or imperialism. The Silk Road predates the European conquest of Asian and African lands in large part. I think that also inspires us to think in terms of, once again, that idea of ownership, that idea of controlling one’s narrative and owning it in ways that are very truthful and that really resonate with our own families, communities, experiences, so forth.

Nabra: Stepping a little bit back, I guess, or to the more local level, each of your theatres is basically… has been doing coalition-building at the local level since you were established. It sounds also that, from what we know of your theatres, from what we’ve learned—we obviously weren’t there when they were established—but it seems like they were partially created in a similar spirit to MENATMA as a gathering place, as a place to foster new voices, to develop new MENA theatre artists.

So, can you talk about what coalition-building has looked like on the local level through each of your individual theatres, perhaps before MENATMA? But also, now that there is this national central coalition, kind of building movements, what is the work at the local levels? What does that look like?

Torange: Well, San Francisco Bay Area has a significant MENA community, but not that big a theatre community. I mean, we have a significant theatre community, but not MENA theatre community. So, especially in the early years, I felt like I was on a campaign. I would go to concerts, I would go to dance performances, I would go to lectures and just campaign on behalf of, not just Golden Thread, but on behalf of theatre. “Come on, theatre is so exciting. This is where you can do this, you can do that.”

We would engage a lot of artists who were not necessarily trained as theatre artists—who were musicians, dancers, spoken word artists. Because part of the challenge was to actually build the community, to actually identify, who are these people, bring them together, and then explore what is possible.

Now, in the Bay Area, there are a lot of— a number of MENA art organizations, music organizations, cultural organizations. At Golden Thread, the last twenty-five years, we have been building relationships with all of them and have used art events and theatre events to really showcase the town, the local talent that we have in our MENA community here. Visual artists that we reached out to and convinced them they could design, become scenic designers, or partner them with a scenic designer so they could see what that process might be like. I feel like our early years were spent selling theatre to our MENA community.

Jamil: Also, sort of prepping the community for stories that were not necessarily celebratory or were not necessarily about putting us always in a good light, but that were complicated and complex and challenging, and I think that for so many in our communities who are accustomed to these bad representations and this misrepresentation, that can be a real challenge. We’ve had to say from day one: We are not about angels or demons. We’re about real people facing the challenges of life and identity and all its complexity.

That has not always been embraced by, let’s say, some of the leadership within the communities, but I think very much embraced by artists, by MENA artists, who want to be able to break free of the constraints of stereotypes and these kind of caricatures that became the mainstay of whatever representation existed. I think it’s a conversation that operates, that functions, on so many levels, because the communities are functioning on so many different levels. For us, we wanted that space where the artists could lead, and that idea that storytellers need to lead, and that some people in the community will take this journey with us and some will not, and that’s probably fine in the big picture.

This thing called Chicago theatre… I’ve never produced theatre in New York, I’ve never produced theatre on the West Coast, so I can speak to this market where people take risks and are rather forgiving, and you can fall on your face and pick yourself up and dust yourself off and try it again. It’s a city that people, artists, move to from the coasts, from across the country, to hone their craft and to really establish their voices. For us, it has been such... Chicago has been really a great fit because we found a broader community that was like, "Yeah, we need to hear these stories.”

That’s not to say there aren’t problematic figures or there aren’t... But by and large, we have felt very accepted and supported. As a result, there’s now a great deal more activity within the MENA communities than we would’ve ever imagined, quite frankly.

On a colorful background the headshots of a woman with short hair, a woman with curly hair, and a man with short hair are all seen.

Headshots of Torange Yeghiazarian, Lameece Issaq, and Jamil Khoury.

Lameece: So amazing. Well, Noor is sort of the baby of the group. We’ve been around for ten years and being New York-based, really, we came out of a response to 9/11. We were founded in 2010. However, I became involved in an already growing community in New York led by a bunch of amazing artists at around sort of— After 9/11, they were responding with a comedy festival, with a theatre company called Nibras, which was a collective that was founded by Betty Shamieh, Najla Said, Maha Chehlaoui, Leila Buck. Gosh, I think there were some other people, but they were like the founders of the MENA theatre scene in New York. Then there was this other sort of aspect, and it was the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which was founded by Dean Obeidallah and Maysoon Zayid.

Basically, they grabbed a bunch of theatre people— It was like a four-night thing with a couple of standup nights and a couple of sketch nights or short comedic theatre pieces, and that’s really where I met pretty much everybody that I work with today. We were kind of just this ragtag group of actors, though actors were jumping in and writing, and writers were directing, and people were doing all kinds of things in this very low-stakes kind of environment. The comedy festival was very much for our community.

New York is a rough market. It’s a rough market. A bad review can really sink your project, but with the comedy festival, it was just by us for us. From that the Off-Broadway scene was starting to respond to what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and having conversations. There were plays being produced, not necessarily by our people, by other playwrights who were responding to it. So, slowly, us actors, were starting to take on these parts, and then Nibras got in... There was a whole sort of, this is probably already known somewhere, so forgive me if it’s repetitive, but there was a play that was going to be produced at New York Theatre Workshop called My Name Is Rachel Corrie. It was coming from the UK and the workshop canceled it for many, many different reasons.

It was about this young woman who gets killed by a bulldozer at the hands of the IDF while protecting a home in, I believe, it’s the West Bank.* Then, these sort of amazing group of women and artists went to New York Theatre Workshop, wrote emails and said, this is problematic. Why are you canceling it? You’re not even talking to our community? To their sort of credit, New York Theatre Workshop opened up this space for our community, and Nibras became a theatre in residence there. Eventually, those artists went on to do other things. One of them founded Noor with me and another woman by the name of Nancy Vitale, and it was filling a need because there were many artists who were craving a home.

That’s how we came to it. And certainly, just speaking to what Torange was saying about, like… You’re always selling theatre to our community. They’re like, it’s not poetry or music. Well, it’s theatre! Trying to get them excited about coming out and seeing themselves on stage, but it all comes out of a need.

Marina: You’ve all spoken in different ways about the need for new stories too. You’ve all, and your organizations and companies, have also done so much to foster new voices, but how do you support playwrights and new work that’s being done? We’ve seen everything from readings and events with emerging artists. We’ve also seen some things that are targeting other points of people’s careers too. I just want to add on that all three of the companies that we’re talking about here have new play commissioning programs, and Noor Theatre has a grant program for writers creating pieces in a variety of media, in collaboration with Pop Culture Collaborative. Anything you want to say about this? We would love to hear.

Lameece: Noor has really sort of... We’ve made this decision in recent years. We’re still producing, but our primary focus has been creating a pipeline for writers. I was just saying this to you guys earlier, but I really am a fan of throwing money at playwrights and letting them make something. It’s so rare that you get money to write. We’re such a product-oriented society. We are always looking at the bottom line. Is this going to be commercial enough? Is this going to be producible? Sometimes writers just need the space to write something and not feel not... It’s not that they don’t want to generate and make something that eventually will get made. We all want to get our stuff on stage, but that’s how we learn about it, but I also feel really strongly we should just support their aspirations and we want to continue to create a canon of plays for our community, and then maybe let some other people produce it.

I feel Pop Culture Collaborative is unique. They’re an organization that supports marginalized voices, and their mission is to get those marginalized voices into the mainstream. They have given money to, like, Jill Soloway’s company and Issa Rae’s companies, so to get all kinds of really interesting artists who are getting marginalized voices out there. For the last three years, we’ve had this grant from them to create a writing cohort of three people, to create works that might actually go into the mainstream. The interesting thing is we don’t produce television or film, but these cohorts, these writers, have been writing in television film and in theatre.

So, it makes me think about a larger pipeline that we, maybe at some point, can create with our fellow artists and leaders in our community to get our work out there in different ways. I just feel like, for us, where it’s a super high-stakes game to get things made in New York, why not focus on development and generating for a while? It just kind of gives people a space to be nurtured, and I really love that and believe in that. Listen, I love a good production as much as the next person. I feel like, you know, we do workshops and we do readings. You want to have audiences to do this for, so you can get the feedback. We need the feedback as writers, as artists to know what’s working.

But I think the need to always put something up, put something up, put something up, can be taxing. My sort of philosophy is: Let’s take our time and build.

Jamil: I’m really grateful that you said that because we so often get on the gerbil wheel of producing, opening a show, closing a show. This opportunity to give ourselves time and space is something that I know I’ve been thinking about so much, particularly during this pandemic, and although we’re quite busy in any number of ways, we’re not doing live theatre, and so really having the opportunity to think about: What are different ways to serve this medium and to get in front of audiences and to help writers deepen, enrich further their craft? That doesn’t cost so much money. I mean, I think this is the recurring challenge with a full production, is that it’s so costly and the support for individual productions is not that great, quite frankly.

That money-raising piece of it becomes such a trial. What are other ways for stories to be received and for stories to be impactful that may not require as large of a financial or monetary investment, but could indeed have real reach? I don’t necessarily... I think we all have ideas and I think we’ve all been experimenting with different mediums, but I think that flexibility is so important. I don’t know if the gold standard always has to be a full production. I think that we are all finding ourselves engaging stories, and being very fulfilled in that process, without sitting in a theatre for the past year.

I do think allowing ourselves to rewrite the rules or create some new rules without throwing everything out, of course— But that has certainly been a silver lining of the past year.

Torange: I would just add that, in thinking about new play development and commissions specifically, I think about, What are the stories that aren’t being told? And I go after that. And who are the artists that are not being engaged? Either they don’t consider themselves part of the MENA community or they don’t consider... There’s also this fear of being boxed in, and who are those high-quality artists or high-promise artists that could be engaged in the community, and who are the communities that aren’t being represented? Those questions inform our decisions in terms of new plays that we want to develop or new commissions that we want to offer.

Yeah, and absolutely there are many ways of supporting new work, but I do think, just to be contrary, I would advocate for productions because it’s, at the end of the day, if it’s not on stage, if it’s not fully embodied, if it doesn’t have an audience that has that experience of being transformed by what those actors are bringing on stage… And that can happen in a reading for sure, but it happens in a much deeper, very different way in a production.

Nabra: I love hearing each of you talk about the unique ways that you’re supporting playwrights and uplifting playwrights, as well as, I mean, I know that all of this work goes to all different disciplines of theatremakers and uplifting and supporting MENA theatremakers. My next question is really about what non-MENA theatremakers and theatres should do in supporting this movement and this work? I mean, it goes without saying, obviously, “produce MENA plays” is kind of one of the clear answers to that. But I know co-productions with theatres of color is something that’s come up a lot and how to do that responsibly and well.

As well as there are a lot of non-MENA theatremakers that are trying to figure out what their place in supporting theatres of color and theatremakers of color and stories of communities of color. In your opinions, what should the role of non-MENA theatre be in supporting this movement?

Lameece: You bring up so many good things there. In addition to putting MENA theatre artists in leadership positions, i.e., hiring them as directors, producing their plays, bringing on dramaturgs, co-producing with smaller BIPOC—and I think this is across the board—smaller BIPOC theatres, is one way you can really support an entire community. Because oftentimes, what you’ll see… And listen, writers and artists, you want to be visible. You want to go into those institutions that are going to give you that support, that are going to give you that credibility, that are going to give you the opportunity. Obviously, I mean, people want to work, they want opportunity.

What often happens, and what I see, is that these big sort of well-known powerful institutions will sort of pluck a few choice playwrights out of a community and do all their work and get all that funding. Then you have theatres like ours: we’re on the ground doing the work and building the coalitions and building the community. So, why not support the community by taking on a co-production with that theatre, because then some resource is going to them, visibility is also going to them. They can then support more artists. Then you also have access to their audiences and vice versa. I feel like it’s a really smart way to do your work and not just check off the box. That’s my—

Jamil: I want to second that, but I also want to say that we run the risk of entering into these kinds of colonial relationships with large institutional theatres who are not above taking advantage or wanting to tap into the smaller companies audience or skillsets and base of knowledge and so forth, and not necessarily credited all the time or provided compensation for what we bring to the table. Obviously, I’m presenting the less than ideal scenarios, and there are certainly plenty of ideal scenarios out there, but we’re put in this position of having to educate the larger theatre companies about what this relationship needs to look like.

Once again, not a bad thing, not a hardship necessarily, but we have to mitigate against that inequity that exists, really by definition, by virtue, of our budget sizes. That can become tricky. There’s things that we may be aware of or conscientious of that the larger theatre just hadn’t confronted or considered or ever had to grapple with. Also, many of the internal conflicts, intra to communities, and some of the divisions and, if you will, rivalries that may exist are not necessarily known or seen, but can be played in ways that are not helpful.

Nabra: I want to also shout out some of the equity and inclusion work and statements that each of your theatres have put out when it comes, especially to the relationship between the MENA theatre movement, MENA theatre artists, and predominantly white institutions. Noor Theatre wrote a letter called A Call for Equity and Inclusion, which was released in 2017, and Golden Thread and Silk Road Rising jointly penned an open letter called Dear Producers and Artistic Directors of the American Theatre, and also the Middle Eastern American Theatre Artists’ Bill of Rights. I think those really go deep into some of those answers when it comes to PWIs and their place in this movement and in their relationship with MENA theatre artists.

Torange: I would also encourage us to look at co-productions with other theatres of color. There is no reason to seek out PWIs. There’s no reason to seek out sort of white Western European narratives as a reference point for ourselves, right? At Golden Thread, we’ve had our best core production experiences with companies like African-American Shakespeare Company or Asian American Theatre Company or most recently with Crowded Fire Theatre. Companies that share our values and know about otherness and understand it on a deep level.

By bringing our communities together, we kind of overcome this tendency to think of our situation as unique. And we begin to understand that we are part of a larger conversation in this country, right? I think that’s really valuable. The margins no longer are in the margins. The margins are now the center, and we need to acknowledge that and hold that up and celebrate it.

Nabra: Absolutely. I love that… Bringing up this idea of leaning towards and looking towards the partnerships that will fulfill and support instead of, potentially, in some situations, instead of the partnerships you’ll have to navigate in those more maybe hierarchical or inequitable spaces. Yeah, a lot to think about in all of that.

Lameece: I’ll also say some of the institutions at PWIs are recently, I can think of a few, hiring BIPOC artists, BIPOC ADs, so there are richer conversations to be had as well. It’s great, because we want to be vigilant. We want to come together with— I love the point that you made, Torange, about coming together with other BIPOC theatres. I mean, there’s so many ways to express this, and if we’re going on this sort of, We See White Theater, and they’re asking, because sometimes they can offer BIPOC companies—and we’ve certainly experienced this—grants or opportunities that are really just for them to sort of look good.

They’re doing it for the optics. Oftentimes, what it ends up doing is— It’s sort of draining our own resources because then we have to come up with a program for the money that they’re offering or whatever that is, and it isn’t always in our best interest. So the other thing I would say to these white theatres is ask these communities what they need and don’t just assume. And don’t assume that they should be grateful for some money you want to throw at them, because it might be costing them a lot more to take that money.

Marina: That’s a great point. Because we’re close to out of time, we just want to ask one last question very quickly. What are some things that you’re working on right now, whether they’re your own work or work with your company that are partially with coalition building? But we would just love to hear from each of you on that.

Torange: I’ll jump on that because my answer is quick. I’m working on retiring. I’m very excited about it. Moving on from Golden Thread Productions, our new AD will begin any day now, I think in the next few weeks. We’re very excited, once we know the date to announce it, and I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to focus on my artistic work, writing, freelance directing. If anybody wants to hire me, I’m available. I’ll be available soon.

Jamil: We are in the early stages of creating a think tank called Polycultural Institute. I’ve been very wed to the theory of polyculturalism, which is about cultural interchange and what happens when cultures coalesce, converse, collide, blend, so forth. We are speaking to artists and scholars and activists about generating discourse and representation that looks like a polycultural America, and that we don’t exist in silos and that we are constantly intersecting one way or another, and how do we leverage that to essentially change the story and to change how we talk about centers and so forth? And the fact that our cultures are not static, they are not fixed.

They are dynamic and they are always evolving, and we are evolving as part of this interchange with one another. So, out of that, we’ll grow once again, discourse, representation, plays, stories, digital work, so forth, that looks like the country we want to see, quite frankly, and looks like the conversations we want to see. So, stay tuned for Polycultural Institute.

Lameece: That’s incredible. Torange, we’re excited to pluck you now that you have the time to give to your artistry. It’s going to be so great to play with you in that way, and Jamil, you guys are always doing such extraordinary things, both you and Torange. We’re working on expanding our team, so we’ll be... I can’t say who the two new hires are, but super excited to announce them. They’re going to grow our Noor’s staff in these beautiful new ways, they’re just really exciting expansive minds. I’m so thrilled to learn from them and bring them on. And then we’re in the middle of commissions. We’ve got a new play commission coming up. Also, all of these things are yet to be announced, but we’re very excited to be working with this one person.

We’re going to be awarding this Pop Culture Collaborative cohort in the coming month as well. So, trying to give our people support and continue being part of all of these incredible communities, this community of artists. It’s such a pleasure, and there’s so much to learn. I always just feel like I’ve got just such a brilliant, brilliant community of people. It’s such a great thing to be a part of.

Nabra: Yeah. Amazing. Thank you all so much. You’re always doing so much, and it’s really... This is kind of a monumental dream way to end the first season of our podcast. To have all three of you in one room is like astounding. I’m so honored to be here with you and to share this time with you. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for sharing more about the coalition-building and the nuances behind that. We’ll be obviously following each of your theatres and all the incredible work you do vigilantly as well as MENATMA and its development.

Congratulations, Torange, on your retirement—impending retirement—into, I’m sure, much, much more artistic work as always, and looking forward to seeing that. So, thank you all so much for joining us.

Jamil: Thank you.

Torange: Thank you for having me.

Jamil: It’s an honor.

Lameece: Thank you so much.

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, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved 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 other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.

Nabra: 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. We hope you tune in next time. Thanks for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Marina: Yalla, bye.

Nabra: Yalla, bye.


*Correction: In this episode, it was stated that Rachel Corrie was killed protecting a home in the West Bank. Corrie was actually killed in the Gaza Strip on 16 March 2003. For more information on Corrie’s life and legacy, visit https://rachelcorriefoundation.org/

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Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The 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!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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