Nabra: Salaam alaikum! Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.
Marina: 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 theatre makers 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.
Nabra: Hello, listeners. Thank you all so much for joining us for our second season. Here we are in the last episode and it was really a season packed with multifaceted interviews, some of our absolute favorite artists. There were so many people we wanted to interview. We got through a lot of them, but there’s so many more that—you better watch out, we’re going to invite you real soon, if you’rw listening and a MENA artist! Today, for our last episode, Marina and I are going to sit down to tea. Although, I will call Marina out and point out that she doesn’t actually have tea today, but I do.
Marina: I have sparkling water, which is pretty much the norm for me y’all. But I have to say, I’m allergic to tea that is actually from the tea plant. So I can only have herbal tea.
Nabra: Yeah, we got to revisit—
Marina: It’s a source of frustration.
Nabra:—that really sad fact that we revealed in episode one.
Marina: Did we really?
Nabra: We did, because I was like, “How did you survive my grandma’s apartment in Egypt while being allergic to tea?” I don’t know. It was a very fraught time in our lives together.
Marina: So fraught.
Nabra: And now, here we are, once again, she’s faking tea.
Marina: Yeah. Andy hasaseya.[I have an allergy.] That’s what I always say.
Nabra: Andy hasaseya! You’re right. O, but sparkling water is a terrible alternative. Terrible.
Marina: That is extremely judgmental, Nabra. Thank you.
Nabra: I really don’t like sparkling water. If we’re going to get real about our feelings. Flavored sparkling water is terrible.
Marina: Objectively false. Okay, great.
Nabra: It’s objectively true. And so, today we’re going to be talking about objective truths for the rest of the episode—highlights from this season, as well as what’s to come in the future of Kunafa and Shay. I want to make sure that we first give a bit of an update on our own personal projects. Marina, you just worked on a very exciting project. Can you talk to us about that?
Marina: This year I’ve been part of a cohort of community public service fellows at Stanford, and in this group we meet every other week and we read scholarship about participant action research and other types of community-based research and scholarship and advocacy and that’s been really exciting. And so, part of that was to approach a community organization and see how you could work with them, if there was a way that you could find that was a genuine and useful connection for both groups. So I approached my advisor who put me in touch with this wonderful Arab American arts organization, Zawaya, which has the branch Aswat. And so, I worked with group, and I went to them and I said, “Here’s what my skill set is. How can we work together?” And the woman Nabila said, “Well, the parents have been wanting to have the kids talk about what it means to be Palestinian, and is that something that we can do together?” And so, I was like, “Yes, okay.”
Monologue projects really using applied theatre to talk about identity: exciting to me. So that process started in November. December was sort of when we started thinking about it, and then we finally had our performances this past weekend and it was really wonderful to hear the fifteen Bay Area kids, ages seven to seventeen, writing poems, monologues, singing songs about their identity. And after one of the rehearsals, apparently a kid went home and said, “Mom, I have Palestinian friends now.” And the mom was like, “No, you’ve always had Palestinian friends, at the mosque, at school. You know Palestinian kids.” But for that child, it felt real now that they had talked about their identity and now that a few of them had been like, “Oh, I’ve been teased for bringing molokhiya to school” or “I’ve had this particular experience.”
So it was really meaningful to see these connections being made, to see this younger generation really support each other. The seventeen-year-olds really helping with some of the younger kids and showing what it means to be a teenager in this way. So it was really beautiful.
Nabra: That’s lovely.
Marina: Yeah, yeah. I’m really grateful.
Nabra: And do you usually do youth theatre work? Don’t you usually work with adults and college students and things like that?
Marina: Yeah. I mean, one of my undergrad degrees is in secondary ed, and so I taught high school for a bit, but still not elementary or middle school age.
Nabra: Apparently, I don’t know anything or remember anything about you. I think we both do way too much, and I can’t keep track of anything.
Marina: There’s just a lot. Yeah. And I love working with kids, and it’s been so refreshing. Yeah, it was just a brief period of my life after undergrad, before my MFA.
Nabra: Okay. Goodness gracious. We should cut this for my shame. Just kidding. We’re not going to edit this episode. No editing.
Marina: We’re editing the episode, Nabra. I am editing it, dear listeners.
Nabra: It’s true. Marina really does need credit for editing all of these episodes. It’s very, very impressive. Thank you, Marina.
Marina: I appreciate it, Nabra. But yeah, I would say that answers the Palestinian Youth Monologues, right? And the kids are excited to do another version at some point. Yeah. To explore their own community and their own selves together and what a great thing theatre is to help them bring that to life in different ways, and the kids are super talented. Oh my gosh.
Nabra: It’s reminding me of Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi from Episode Eight. Sounds like you might have a Palestinian youth Masrah coming up in the Stanford area.
Marina: That would be amazing. And all the kids are much better at Arabic than I am, so there’s also that.
Nabra: Yeah, you might get kicked out, kind of like Raymond was in that situation. But, you know what, your Arabic, I keep telling you that you’re going to be more fluent than me really soon, and I’m going to be really shameful, so I have to really practice, so that you don’t catch up to me. It’s all pride, really.
Marina: Oh, I mean, and that’s fabulous. But I think what is everyone that is listening knows, Nabra, is that no matter what, as I am working on a Levantine dialect, you will always have your Egyptian and you will always say that the Egyptian is the right Arabic. And so, I have no chance of actually winning this fight.
Nabra: It’s true. Not the right Arabic, just the better Arabic.
Marina: Right, which translates a little bit here to right. But anyway.
Nabra: —the best Arabic. Because we’re talking about objective truths in this episode. There is no opinion involved today.
Marina: Well, this seems like a good time to bring up the fact that Nabra got an amazing haircut and looks gameela awy [very beautiful].
Nabra: Shukran! [Thank you!] Yeah, I cut my hair very, very short, got a buzz cut and I’m very happy about it. That should be my only update. Everything else pales in comparison. I’m just living on my hair right now.
Marina: I know. Okay, wait. So you came back this morning from a training that you were leading. You led several trainings this weekend. Tell us about what those trainings are and what you’re working on.
Nabra: Oh my goodness. I am getting too busy, but in the most—
Nabra: Yeah, I know, right? I thought I was too busy, and then I kept doing more, and I don’t know what is happening in my life right now. But somehow I’m keeping all the balls in the air. Yeah, my equity, diversity, and inclusion consulting—especially independently—has really been picking up a lot. So, I specialize in Theatre of the Oppressed and I’ve been a Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner for like a decade now. And I’ve developed anti-racism trainings and different types of Theatre of the Oppressed based trainings. And I’ve been super fortunate to have more visibility around my trainings locally in the Seattle area. And so, I’ve been working with a lot of different nonprofit organizations in the area to do de-escalation training, microaggression bystander intervention training, anti-racism trainings, and it’s just so fulfilling and I love meeting all of these different groups.
Nabra: I’m working with not only nonprofits, but also schools in doing this kind of work. So that has been lovely. And I just had a training in Port Townsend, so I’m a little bit tired. Actually, quite tired today, but it’s totally worth it. It’s also a lovely place to be, so that’s a lot of what I’ve been doing more of recently, but—
Marina: Wait, what does that training look like?
Nabra: Oh my goodness. Well, we could sit here and talk for ages. We did some episodes on Theatre of the Oppressed in the past.
Marina: Totally. But when you come in-
Nabra: Yeah. I do both image theatre and what I call mini forum theatre. I create scripts. In the de-escalation training, I create scripts based on the organizations’ real-life scenarios that have happened at that organization. And then, do little forum theatre scenes with them, so that you can practice de-escalation or bystander intervention. And then, also a lot of my workshops are a lot of different image theatre reflecting on your own positionality within anti-racist movements and your own reflections on anti-racism in different spheres, whether that be your school or your organization or your personal life or interpersonal life, etc.
It’s hard to explain, but if you know Theatre of the Oppressed, I really draw from a lot of the different practices. And I’ve also done newspaper theatre workshops around processing current events and just playing with Theatre of the Oppressed a lot and exploring the different ways that it can make positive change. So I’ve been doing that. I’ve been also doing Theatre of the Oppressed as part of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture and Seattle Public Schools Creative Advantage Program. They have a program called the Ethnic Studies and Theatre of the Oppressed Institute, so I’ve been really thankful to be a teaching artist for that and working with fourth graders at Dunlap Elementary School here in Seattle, which is one of the best places ever. It’s all POC school, just such lovely, energetic, wonderful children, and I’ve never worked with elementary schoolers. I’ve worked with them once a long time ago. I was a teaching artist for an elementary school and middle school-aged arts organization, but it’s been a long, long time. So it’s really nice to get back into that.
They make me lose my voice every single time I teach in their classrooms, but it’s totally worth it. I love them so much. And then, this year has been absolutely melting my brain, because in addition to my continued full-time job at Seattle Rep as Director of Arts Engagement, I’ve had four contracts. So have this, we’re doing Kunafa and Shay, of course, season two. We have the Ethnic Studies Theatre of the Oppressed. I’m also an EDI consultant for Avent Diversity Consulting, which is a national consulting firm. So I’ve been working with for-profit organizations, corporations, academic organizations, nonprofits, all types of folks, but a lot of for-profits doing DEI work there, which is also a whole nother realm. And then, what is my fourth contract. I don’t know. I can’t keep track, honestly, of what I’m doing in my life. And then, all the independent work has also been keeping me plenty, plenty busy.
Marina: I love hearing about the work you’re doing and all the things that are happening, especially in Seattle. Go Seattle.
Nabra: Yeah, Seattle! It’s bumping over here. Yeah, and it’s really picking back up. There’s so, so much happening and it’s really exciting to really be a part of movement building and community organizing here, and anti-racist work.
Nabra: Okay, you got to tell me more. I know that this isn’t your only project.
Marina: Yes, so just speaking of Palestinian theatre again, I had a project that I directed at Stanford a few weeks ago that’s called Shakespeare’s Sisters and it is the first time the piece was done in the United States. It was done before that, created in Al-Harah Theatre in Beit Jala, and it was started from this drama therapy exercise with women in Bethlehem talking about their experiences with patriarchy sort of broadly. And then, this play was made from that, and it’s all riffing off of this idea that’s in Virginia Woolf’s book A Room of One’s Own, that’s if Shakespeare had a sister she would not have been given the same privileges that Shakespeare had, she would’ve ended up committing suicide, because life was not treating her the same way that it was treating her brother and she saw what that life was like for him. And so, this play is premised on that, but also what happens when women have a space that is supportive or each other.
So the house in Shakespeare’s Sisters becomes, literally, a physical space where women can gather and be together and support and uplift each other and have a place away from society, but it also becomes a liminal space where the women are able to sort of mentally take a respite from their lives and where they’re able to support each other in a different way that’s not just in this physical realm. So I love the play, it’s just a really interesting piece and it also, I think, is fun and engaging in ways that plays that sometimes deal with the subject matter can feel like maybe it’s going to be didactic and it really isn’t. So it was exciting to do. I did that with undergraduate actors here who were under a SWANASA casting umbrella and it was really... I think my favorite part of the process was, first of all, that we got to do the play, because some of the other plays that were slated for that weekend were canceled because of COVID. Even now, it’s just another resurgence of COVID cases here, especially in the undergrad population.
Nabra: Yeah, same here.
Marina: Yeah. But also, just seeing people in the audience who I’ve not seen in this particular theatre before, so I think that was really meaningful. Also, three of my four actors were Arabic speaking, and so there were just some times where one of them would get flustered with her lines and she would just go off in Arabic and it was, I mean, just on a personal note, fun to be able to interact with her in that way, and be like, “Oh, I can actually bring her back in Arabic here. I can redirect this in Arabic,” or something. So that was really interesting. Yeah, and I’m hopefully going to be in Palestine where this piece was created this summer, so I’ll hopefully get to meet some of the women who were part of this original process, which is what I’m most excited about right now.
Nabra: Oh my goodness. That’s amazing. And also, relating it to our season, I’m making connections, it reminds me a lot about the applied theatre that Zeina Daccache does and Sahar Assaf does. And actually a lot of the folks that we have talked to, a lot of the women especially do a lot of women coalition building through theatre or community-engaged theatre around creating feminist spaces. And that actually does also remind me what my fourth contract is, which is, how could I forget? Working with an incredible organization that I absolutely love in Seattle called Young Women Empowered and I’m a teaching artist for them and I’ve been doing a semester long theatre class that the plan, hopefully, crossing my fingers, is to bring it back to them for a yearlong theatre class and partnership with Seattle Rep. So they’re coming to see our shows at Seattle Rep and I have both my hats on. I have two or more hats on most of the time, these days, I’m really becoming the Mad Hatter and I don’t know how long I’ll stay sane.
Marina: When you talk about wearing these hats, though, let’s go back just in making connections, Denmo brought up something about being multihyphenate and how that’s from the perspective of the medium, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about nonstop since she said it because, as artists, we want to define ourselves as expansively as possible because we recognize that these sort of arbitrary boundaries of what this word has meant before, so as a director, as a dramaturg. And we want to really broaden these terms and see them expansively. But, at the same time, we are forced to market ourselves in certain ways, and under a colonial, imperial structure that theatre hasn’t really changed much from, that is particularly difficult. And then, I think that there’s this added difficulty of when we have to wear multiple hats, because we’re actually... the institutions that are behind us in different ways. And so, there’s monetary support that comes behind these.
I mean, maybe I’m starting too broad of a topic for this conversation now, but it’s just something I’ve been really thinking about, is how to be expansive but recognize that there really are things that are trying to siphon us and silo off that creative energy.
Nabra: Yeah, you’ve articulated that so well. A lot of the contracts that I found myself in was because they kind of came naturally out of other work that I was doing or intersecting with in either my full-time job or in something else I was doing. And how it happened that I was, “Oh my gosh, I’m on so many contracts. What am I doing?” is because I think of being multihyphenate as really accepting and embracing opportunities and not just opportunities to have jobs, but to engage community. Pirronne and Lia and I talked about how everything that we do is community-engaged. And so, when I see an opportunity that I can step into, a new community and use my theatre practice, especially Theatre of the Oppressed, which I both love and am good at, I think, facilitating,
I want to take that opportunity and support that community building in some way. And so, I love all that I’m doing, so it’s hard to say no to them, not to do that. But it’s true that the creating those boundaries and distinctions not only is important, because I need to know who’s paying me for what time, logistically, how I’m segmenting my time and understanding what my commitments are and when I’m at capacity and when I’m over capacity and when I do have time for something else. But also, kind of as a self-care practice I’ve found. I need to kind of draw those distinctions. If I let them mush too much together, I can’t analyze, I guess, my capacity. I guess it goes back to understanding my time and capacity and being able to kind of create personal and professional boundaries around what I’m doing.
For me, that works. If I can recognize, I’m wearing two hats right now, and then the next day I’m just wearing this hat, and then I’m switching this hat, that allows me to better understand how I’m using my time. And in assessing next season, because a lot of these contracts are ending in summer, assessing how I want to use my time next season and trying to have more time for myself and for healing and for relaxation and realizing I absolutely have that need. Seeing where the Venn diagram is and where I might be able to partner with myself or with other organizations I’m working with and kind of better understand the greater community and support that I might be able to draw on to continue community engagement in the way that I want to see happening in this local community, but maybe not having every single hat on my own head at the present moment. Passing some hats along, perhaps. And then, also allowing for also some open opportunity. I think we all need space not only to rest, but also for new opportunities to present themselves, so I’m thinking a lot about that right now, as we’re going into the summer.
Marina: I love that. I mean, everything that you said, and I also think sometimes whenever I, for myself, look at the things that I’m doing it also helps me realize what my particular desires are. So what you’re looking at with, “Oh, I’ve done this. What do I want to do next?” So, I’ve been doing some fight choreography for a student group on campus, and I love doing fight choreography. But sometimes I think, in theatre, because we all do so many things, that there’s an assumption, in my own mind, like, “Oh, everyone can do this. Everyone can do the same things that I can do,” but remembering and taking a step back and reflecting on here’s what I’m interested in doing, here’s what I have the ability and capabilities to do, makes me feel like, “Oh, actually this is how I’m a unique artist in this way.”
And so, while we are all artists, really focusing in on the things that I want to do and that bring me joy and that make me feel like I’m contributing to the community and to whatever my hopes are for this world, but also just recognizing that we are all different. And so instead of having this one term or just this one hat, that even under that term that’s the umbrella that there’s so much more there. So, I find that really useful.
Marina: On a related note, but sort of not, I mean, just making another connection to our season, I have been really reflecting on what Arti and Yasmin talked about with reviews, and it’s something that we’ve actually been having a little bit of a struggle with. And I say we, it’s something that I’m noting that’s happening in the Bay Area, is that there are a lot of reviews that are coming out that feel really imbalanced and that feel, because of word limits, maybe missing the point or, I hesitate to even say, potentially missing the point on purpose. But when a review is only three hundred words and there is a play that is about a cultural context that the reviewer is not from, it sometimes feels like, “Oh, how could this possibly do this play any justice?”
And in a world where reviews are necessary for future productions of plays, whether or not we like that system—I certainly do not like that system—but I’ve been really reflecting on different structures that exist. So that’s something that I’m thinking about for the future for myself and for the artists that I love and vibe with in the Bay Area, is how can we do something that’s a little bit different here, because there’s a disservice that’s actually being done right now that I’ve been seeing play out with artists whom I adore and respect and whose work is not being handled in a culturally competent way. So it’s interesting that that episode was so important, but has also just had reverberations that make me wonder if there’s a Chicago model of Rescripted that can be started here. So, if anyone’s listening and wants to join in on this effort, please let me know, because there’s some work that can be done here.
Nabra: We need that everywhere. And I’ve been also thinking about that episode, because it was so kind of outside of the realm of what I’m usually involved in. I’m not involved in theatre criticism, I also am not in marketing and communications, so I collaborate with that world a lot and I do my own marketing, of course, in my programs and in my personal life, but that field is not something that I’m a professional in. And they brought up so many fascinating points and I, also, in reflecting on it, I think out of all the things or many of the things that We See You White American Theatre pointed to one of the places where I think the least progress has been made or change has been made is in the realm of theatre criticism and theatre writing or arts writing. I see it as we’re coming back to in-person productions, it’s just kind of continuing on the trajectory that it’s been on. And it’s something that I talk to my colleagues a lot about, because that’s an issue here in Seattle and in a lot of places, all the different cities I’ve worked in.
But there doesn’t seem to be a short-term fix, I guess. So it was pretty illuminating to hear from Arti and Yasmin about what they’re doing that is so much approaching the systemic issues and recognizing the systemic issues and both it felt like working within them, but also fighting against them at the same time, which feels like the way to make significant change within the realm of theatre criticism.
Marina: Yes. Oh my goodness. And, just while we’re talking here, I mean, it’s definitely a sidebar, but one of the plays that I’ve seen recently that is a play I cannot stop thinking about is called Drowning in Cairo, which is written by Adam Ashraf Elsayigh and it was done at Golden Thread recently, had a great production there, directed by Sahar, who we had on the show. But it’s a play that I can’t stop thinking about because I saw it twice; I wept both times; I think that it is doing interesting things with structure and form. I love seeing plays that are, of course, set outside of the United States, specifically, in this case, in Egypt, dealing with the Queen Boat incident and then subsequent LGBTQ issues and the people that are directly impacted by them. I bring this all up to say, check out that play, I think, I love it. It was great.
Nabra: Well, speaking of Golden Thread, something I haven’t told you yet, but—
Marina: Wait, me or everyone?
Nabra: No, you. You, Marina and, I guess, everyone, too, depending on who I’ve talked to—
Marina: Breaking news.
Nabra: —by the time this comes out. Breaking news everyone, this is way too much tension. The problem is, listeners, you did not see Marina’s face, which was far too overly dramatic for the news I’m about to share right now.
Marina: I can’t handle this.
Nabra: But anyways, my play What to Expect When You’re Simulating Expecting, is going to be part of Golden Thread’s New Threads Reading Series in August!
Marina: Amazing, Nabra.
Nabra: So look out for that. I’m super excited.
Marina: Oh, I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.
Nabra: I know. Listen, it just happened, so I’m really excited about that, because I love, love, love Golden Thread. It’s really my dream to work with them more.
Marina: Oh my gosh, and this play is so great, y’all.
Nabra: Thank you.
Marina: Nabra let me read a draft and it’s so cool. And I’m not going to be here; I’m going to be in Palestine. What? Is it streaming?
Nabra: I don’t know.
Marina: Everyone make sure you check it out. Okay.
Nabra: Thank you, Marina. Yeah, so this is a play that I wrote during the pandemic. and I actually just, this past weekend, finished a third draft on it. So it’s something that I wrote and then shared with a few close friends and got some feedback—
Marina: And apparently Golden Thread.
Nabra: And Golden Thread. I felt like they would like it. I don’t know. It feels up their alley and it’s around climate change and struggles with identity and the future generations and has a lot of mixed-race characters. Actually, all the characters are mixed race, which I’m excited about. I mean, I wrote it, but I’m also excited about my own plays, because I don’t see a lot of mixed-race characters specifically and, obviously, I’m mixed-race, so I want to see more of that representation. So I’m excited about that and I’m doing another private reading—
Nabra: —of a play that I wrote called Confessions that I really wrote for myself. I didn’t have the intention to share it with people until I finished a full-
Marina: Clearly, I haven’t read it.
Nabra: I know. I’m very secretive about this play. It’s like my—
Marina: Wait, is this the Muslim woman play?
Nabra: Yes, it’s about Muslim women and I call it my play diary, it’s where I kind of just vented about the state of representation in the American theatre for like a year and a half or two years, and then it was suddenly finished and I kind of was like, “Okay, I don’t really know what to do with this, but I want to share it with my community.” What I learned is that I wrote this for other young Muslim women or Muslim women in generally, really. And so, I kind of tiptoed out of my comfort zone and held a private reading at a friend and colleague’s house a while ago. Goodness, I don’t remember when that happened, maybe less than a year ago, but more than six months ago? Question mark? And only invited MENA and Muslim women. And we had food and hung around and just sat around a couch and people just volunteered to read parts and it was amazing. We were there for so long.
I was like, “Oh, maybe it’ll be like two hours,” I think the play itself is an hour and a half. We were there for like four or five hours and we didn’t even notice. We were just having the best time hanging out together, talking about this play, chatting, playing these characters. It’s a comedy, so we had a lot of fun. And then, they were all like, “We need to do this again,” and I was like, “You know what? I’m going to write a second draft just so I can get this group together again.” And since then, I’ve met some more MENA and Muslim women in the community and invited them. And so, since then I’ve really been thinking about and debriefing with my other POC theatre colleagues around who is a play for and what is audience? Because there is a default of a play being written for a public audience. I think that’s what we, as playwrights, tend to do. That’s what everyone kind of expects of a play.
But I don’t think that’s necessary for either the life cycle or the success even of a play. And it makes me think about, especially, this question of solidarity within our movements. I think there’s an element of community building that we can do in more private settings or by writing plays really for our community specifically and not for a wider audience, that I believe is really powerful. I wrote this for MENA and Muslim women, and I don’t translate the Arabic in the play. I don’t explain things that Muslims would know to a non-Muslim audience. And I think that people can find their way in, but if you’re not of those identities you’re not going to get everything from that play, and I think that’s okay. And I don’t know when or if I want to share this with a public audience.
And so, I’ve been reflecting a lot on that, is what do I want to do with this, what do I want to see more of out of our community and how can we create safer spaces for our people to share really possibly intense, very personal stories without feeling responsible, I guess, for the opinions of others. And this relates, I think, to what you were saying, Marina, that I don’t need a critic to tell me about this play. I don’t think I’d read that. I wouldn’t care; that that’s not what it’s for. It’s for the reflection, internal, and interpersonal reflection, of my community and of myself, really. But then, I also see and reflect on a responsibility, having this play that represents and was written, largely, in response to a lack of really real representation of the young Muslim American identity right now. I feel this responsibility to share that, to have that representation out into the world.
And also, having this be a comedy, along with what Yussef and Leila talked about: a comedy brings people in, it warms people’s hearts, and it’s something that folks are looking for and hungry for right now, in a time of great crisis and strife and something that you don’t see produced from our communities. You see so many dramatic, traumatic stories coming out of the MENASA community. And so, I see a responsibility that’s kind of sitting in my computer and trying to balance my desire for community building and for personal comfort or safety with this need to contribute to the greater representation of our communities and to kind of use my privilege that I have in many different spheres, to push myself to share stories that maybe other folks, who have less privilege than me, wouldn’t be able to share.
It’s a lot of what I’ve been thinking about recently with this play, but I mean, if nothing else, I’m just super, super excited to have this private reading and, honestly, if it goes nowhere else, I feel like I’d be happy to just keep inviting women to a living room under the guise of, I’m going to keep working on this play and just keep having food and tea and be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m still working on it. Let’s get together for another draft.” That might be my secret plan.
Marina: I love that. And, I mean, Nabra, yes, keep us posted on where this is going, even it’s going just where it is right now. I think that we need to have different standards for what success of this looks like, right? For everything. But also, just in defense of not writing for the most broad, general audience ever, oh my gosh, if people could make me go see Marvel movies and Star Wars and I’m supposed to believe that there are these tropes that have existed in these comics and cartoons that now exist in this thing; I don’t understand what the heck’s going on. But that’s a thing: there are these givens that people expect. Like, yeah, let the Muslim identity be the given and everyone else can figure it out. It really is great and wonderful, and I wish more plays would do that. I wish we would stop trying to appeal to the broad masses. Disney’s doing that, and they’re doing it quite successfully for themselves.
Nabra: And I think that’s also what I’m craving more and why I was fired up enough to write this. And I’m just going to connect it to everything.
Marina: Do it.
Nabra: Because it’s so much on the forefront of my mind. But Betty and Tracy were talking a lot about different nuances of representation, but one of the things that we talked about in that episode, which was our first episode of the season, is the face that it limits our artistic creativity to cater to a broad, white, older audience. Not having the default of working with and creating art for our community, causes us to use time and effort and money and our artistic capacity to explain. We spend so much time explaining, whether that be to the audience or, as they also brought up, to designers who don’t share those identities. I want less of that explaining, and this play basically leaves no room for explaining. Y’all, you would have to, if this was a non-MENA, non-women, non-Muslim group of people putting on this particular play, they’d spend the entire rehearsal period researching or getting a lecture from their cultural consultant.
Nabra: And so, creating these plays that are really driven by that understanding, I think it’s so important for our community as we move towards more robust representation, kind of get to the next level of representation. And also, I mean, groups that are doing it really well—I think about Parmida and Seda Theatre Company here in Seattle who are doing plays and doing classes specifically for the Iranian community in Farsi, primarily, same with Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi doing plays in Arabic. It immediately kind of means that it’s for and by the community. That kind of gives it that, again, push. You can’t just hire a non-Iranian person to work with Seda, because you have to have that cultural context through the language context. And I think Shadi with her company, by virtue of the ensemble, investing in an ensemble structure where everyone’s Iranian. Again, there’s that shorthand and that artistic license to create work that is really speaking to their community and let that artistry shine without requiring explanation and fitting within existing structures.
Marina: Yes. Amazing. Wait, okay, Nabra. I know that we’ve talked about you losing your voice, but one more thing to add onto what you were just saying, please, if you don’t mind, I know that you gave a lecture on African theatre at UW, and I was hoping you could talk to us a little bit about what the contents of that lecture were.
Nabra: Oh my goodness. I am so thankful to have gotten the opportunity to do this. I did this for the class, a friend of mine who is a professor at UW named Dr. Jasmine Mahmoud. And it was a Theatre 101 lecture and I kept wondering, “Am I going too deep?” But I’ve wanted to basically write this lecture or write this paper for a long, long time. And really, I’ve been, obviously, studying and experiencing African theatre my whole life, but especially studying it since college and kind of focusing on African theatre both, obviously, in my own writing as an African writer, but also in consuming a lot of especially West African and South African media. And so, I’ve noticed a lot of trends in both African theatre of the continent, but also African diasporic theatre here in the United States. And so, it was really kind of illustrating putting into writing the trends that I’m seeing and what constitutes elements of a modern African theatre canon.
And that, especially, an African theatre canon that includes traditional and Indigenous theatre forums like oral tradition and ritual. So what does that look like in modern context, in a classical context, as well as in both Indigenous African context and a diasporic context? That’s my very academic overview, but I hope one day I’ll be able to share this more widely or write a paper on it.
Marina: Yes. We’re always here for the academic context. It’s just lucky that we don’t have more of these free-for-all chats whenever I feel like I’m deep in a new book or article that I’m like, “Oh my gosh, Nabra, we have to talk about Christian Hajis right away.”
Nabra: We do that. We do that over the phone after we’ve talked for like an hour about Kunafa and Shay planning. And then, we just keep talking until basically I’m like, “I need to go off and do something,” go to some reading or Marina’s directing some project or something like that.
Nabra: We debrief.
Marina: We do.
Nabra: We do. So in the world of representation I don’t think we can move on or I can’t move on—
Marina: I’m not going anywhere without you.
Nabra: ——until make sure to really purposefully draw attention to the continued work and struggles that are happening in Palestine. Stay on your Palestine news. Ahmed and Hanna in Episode Two, they asked that we remember Palestine when it’s not in the news cycle especially. That’s the time. So if this is your reminder, hey, remember Palestine. Go support Palestine. And also, remember Afghanistan. Since we’ve pulled out troops a lot of the news stopped talking about Afghans who are still in Afghanistan and those that are resettled here in the United States, but there’s a lot of support that both groups need, and so please continue to support that. We, especially in the United States, have a very important responsibility to not forget that struggle and I’ve had the opportunity to work with and get to know the cast of Selling Kabul at Seattle Rep, one of which is Yousof Sultani who we did a special episode with in between season two and three. So shout out to Yousof and all of the artists that keep doing incredible work advocating for national and international communities.
So please, dear listeners, don’t forget there’s always things happening in the Middle East or North Africa. After the explosion in Beirut, there’s still rebuilding that is happening in Lebanon. So don’t turn your eyes away from that, please do continue to advocate, support in any way that you can.
Marina: Definitely. Yeah. Helem—which means “dream” in Arabic, right?—is one of the queer organizations who gives refuge to a lot to people in Lebanon and other places in the Middle East and they were greatly affected by the blast. And so, if you’re ever looking for organizations, they are one who could use some support during this rebuilding time because the rebuilding continues. But yeah, I think it’s just a great reminder, every day, to try to look outside of our own contexts for something that’s happening, because there are things happening always that we just need to be aware of. And if we’re relying on any one news source or any institution really for our news, it gets really tricky and complicated, but we know that in our own context.
Nabra: Absolutely. And speaking of the organization that you just mentioned: season three. Our plan for season three is to have a full LGBTQ+, MENA/SWANA theatre season!
Nabra: So get excited y’all. We’re going to have all the lovely folks in the queer community hopefully joining us to chat about the vast amount of complexities that those intersecting identities have and the incredible work that is happening that also really has also empowered me to speak out more. Seeing all of this queer MENA theatre happening makes me think, “Oh my goodness, if they can share their voice, than maybe I can share my voice, as well.” And that’s also part of the power of representation. And so, let’s end here with what are our summer plans, because we’re probably not going to see y’all till after summer.
Marina: Oh my goodness. We’re also not going to see each other, Nabra. I like when our summer plans include each other.
Nabra: Oh my gosh, yeah. It’s just that I refuse to go to the Middle East in the summer, and you very bravely go there in the midst of that horrible, horrible heat.
Marina: I told you, I’ll go in the winter with you.
Nabra: It’s just so hot. Okay, yeah. Come in the winter with me, but I ain’t coming in the summer with you. It’s too hot. I’m just not going to do it.
Marina: But I’m going this summer. Meet me in Palestine, y’all. I will be there for two months and then I’ll be in Jordan for three weeks, TAing a class, which I’m really excited about. But just taking us back to last season really quickly, we talked with Iman and Edward from ASHTAR Theatre in Ramallah, and actually this podcast connected me to an artist scholar who is going to be in Palestine this summer at the ASHTAR International Youth Theatre Festival. So I’m going to go hang with them a little bit and really excited to see that work. It’s huge. We’ll make sure that it’s put on our Facebook page, too. But very excited for that and just to meet people from different theatres in Palestine. I know some folks that work in the theatre scenes there, but excited to know more. Yeah, that’s the big plan. Keep looking for my tatreez, maybe some day I’ll post pictures of it here, but it’s really exciting. I’m taking classes with Tatreez & Tea. Check out Wafa’s work. Really cool and just so important for continuing the legacy of what the embroidery means.
Nabra: And her tatreez is so beautiful.
Marina: Oh my gosh. You’re very kind.
Nabra: It makes me want to take on another hobby, but I’m like, “I ain’t got time,” but I’m really jealous.
Marina: Oh my gosh. But wait, Nabra and I, I’ve convinced Nabra to do so many things with me in this life. No, she has committed, folks, verbally, to co-writing this feminist—
Nabra: Oh my god. Did I say inshallah [God willing]?
Marina: —SWANA woman play with me. It’s true.
Nabra: I hope I said inshallah. That’s how I’m going to avoid committing verbally to anything in real life.
Marina: I don’t think.
Nabra: Oh my goodness.
Marina: No, I started the Google Drive. It’s okay. Once Nabra and I have a Google Drive, it’s really hard for her to back out on me.
Nabra: Marina is truly very good at convincing me to do things and Google Drives are very convincing. Anyways, no promises listeners. No promises. I am looking forward to relaxing this summer. I have some travel plans. The plan, inshallah, is to go to Paris for my one-year wedding anniversary in July.
Marina: Happy almost anniversary.
Nabra: Thank you! Yeah, it just happened to work out with dates. And so, Daniel and I, my partner, are excited to celebrate both Bastille Day and our anniversary on the Seine River. And then, that’s just on route to visit my brother in Mauritius for his wedding. My brother’s getting married.
Marina: Oh my gosh. Shout out, Shams. Answer my email, Shams.
Nabra: That’s probably the only way to get him to answer your emails. And then, also check out his work. My brother’s an incredible visual and digital artist. Pen and Blade is his—
Marina: Oh my gosh. He’s so good.
Nabra: He has an Instagram and YouTube channel and all types of things. I can’t help but just be always impressed by his visual art. And he and my mom are drawing and illustrating more together, which is lovely. And my dad is doing this incredible trip, photo—
Marina: He’s in Tunis right now, right?
Nabra: —journey. Yeah, well, I think he just landed in Spain today, so he’s retracing Hannibal’s steps through the Alps. Hannibal, not Lecter, old school Hannibal the General. The General.
Marina: Thank you for clarifying.
Nabra: And doing a photo story around that. So look up Michael Nelson, the documentarian. But then, on my way back to Seattle, we’ll be stopping in London, as well. Just to relax and hang out in London for a second, because getting to Mauritius, y’all, you can look this up, Mauritius is a small East African island off the coast of Madagascar, and really the middle of the Indian Ocean. And so, it’s like thirty-three hours to get there by plane. And so, I was like, “I’m not doing that.” It’s long enough, the twenty-four hours to get to Egypt, I’ll do that, but I will not do more than twenty-four hours of flying. And so, that’s why we’re stopping off in Europe, to just have a little bit of breaking things up. So, I feel super, super fortunate to be able to take this trip and I’m super excited about it. And just relax and enjoy my summer, and then get right back to it in August, I’m sure.
Nabra: So we wish you all a very relaxing summer, a very sunshiney, spring. Good luck with all of your gardens out there. I’m trying to make my garden live with the transition out into the sunshine, so I feel for all your gardeners this year. And we’ll see you in the third season of Kunafa and Shay!
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 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 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 comments.
Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thank you for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.
Marina: Yalla, bye!
Nabra: Yalla, bye!
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