(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Middle Eastern American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
ISMAIL KHALIDI: I am a playwright primarily, but also an actor and poet. I am currently co-editing an anthology of Palestinian plays. My work often explores Palestinian identity and history.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
IK: This is a tricky question for me, as it is for many Arab-Americans, I think. I am very light-skinned, with green eyes, so I am often pegged as white. For this reason I often benefit, whether I want to or not, from white skin privilege. That said, my name, my politics, my assumed religion, and my place of birth (Beirut), have since I was young, put me outside of the norm and into categories ranging from ‘other’ to terrorist to anti-Semite to ‘enemy’ — sometimes all at once. I am opposed to racism, to imperialism, and to white privilege in my life and in my work. As a Palestinian-American I have always felt marginalized, misunderstood and vilified to some degree. What is considered acceptable to say and think about Palestinians today is very often utterly bigoted and vile. Much of what one can say about Arabs and Muslims in general is impossible to say about almost any ethnic or racial group in this country. Not that African Americans, Latinos and others are not still victims of horrendous institutional (and personal) racism, not to mention violence and economic terrorism. They most certainly are. But there are certain rhetorical lines that you cannot cross in the public sphere. This is not the case with Arabs. Orientalism, Islamophobia and lynch-mob hyperbole are alive and well in the U.S. when it comes to Arabs and Muslims. It has also been totally acceptable in this country, since the first Gulf War at least, to kill and maim hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Arabs in the course of U.S. wars without even the slightest bit of official moral outrage. Torture too is permissible when the subject is Arab or Muslim. So is extrajudicial killing by drone attack, even if the condemned is an American citizen. Of course, black and brown men too are sometimes killed by police without trial on the streets of every American city. This is all to say that regardless of outward racial categorizations, I am still constantly reminded of my supposed inferiority, my savagery, my expendability, and in the case of my being Palestinian, my non-existence. Ultimately it is white (supposedly Christian) men who construct this reality. In that sense, I most definitely identify as non-white. My work, therefore, is influenced by that dynamic; by my identities and my politics and their respective interactions with mainstream narratives.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
IK: Well, I’m pretty sure I can hear doors closing with this interview. No, in all seriousness, I think that the topic of my work is some sense self-selecting in that there are, from the get-go, only a limited number of American theaters really interested in touching the topic of Palestine. In some cases this makes some sense based on audiences and in some cases it probably results from a lack of courage or else an ideological opposition of some sort. Palestine is taboo and Palestinians, as Edward Said wrote, are too often denied “permission to narrate”. This is the reality that I cope with as a writer, and often the fact that a play is dramatically and artistically engaging as well as meticulously researched will not change this calculus. I would say that often if a theater has the choice between a safe and “moderate” play about Palestine/Israel (i.e. one about two equal sides etc.) on the one hand, and a play that is more accurate in portraying the reality of the conflict from, God forbid, a so-called “political” Palestinian perspective on the other, they will more often than not choose the former. That said, there are theaters all over the country, both big and small, who are not scared to touch Palestine. But not very many. Those theaters should be commended and emulated. Places like Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis that for years have supported marginalized writers and performers and shared powerful voices when others were perhaps scared to. That kind solidarity and vision is invaluable to artists like me, to our communities and to American theater as a whole.
And then there are mainstream places that take chances at times. My play Tennis in Nablus was produced by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, for example. The Alliance is a big, regional theater. They produced my work on merit. They knew my history and research was on point and moreover they found it to be a good piece of drama; a good story. They did not deny me permission to narrate in other words. They intelligently and genuinely engaged Jewish and Arab-American communities before, during and after the production, of course, but they trusted the work and they trusted me. They trusted that I was not using my play as a vehicle to re-package the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That sounds snarky on my part, but you would be surprised how often anything Palestinian is falsely but successfully equated with anti-Semitism and therefore squashed. This, sadly, is the state of discourse in our country as a whole, and so theaters inherently are affected by that overall climate. But I think it is changing, slowly but surely, and I believe the American theater, like other sectors of society, is increasingly ahead of the politicians and mainstream corporate media on this issue. I hope so. It is 2013.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
IK: I think we need, more than anything, to support theaters that are diverse in their content and makeup; theaters that take political risks and tell stories that are often ignored or marginalized. Often that means supporting theaters that based on a specific ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual orientation, but not always. I think it is important on the one hand to cultivate African American, Latino, queer, Arab, Asian, immigrant and other theaters. But it is also conducive to a ghettoization that can pigeonhole these communities on the periphery.
Overall, I think that one problem is that there is a funding gap between mainstream, safe (and primarily white) theaters on the one hand, and the often smaller, more radical theaters that promote marginalized voices and stories. For example, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Lanford Wilson are fine playwrights. Their work should and has been recognized and produced. But you could argue that that such work is produced repeatedly and constantly at the expense of other great American playwrights (both known and unknown), not to mention playwrights from around the world. For instance, can our average theater-goer in the U.S. name even one playwright from the Arab world? What about from the vast and diverse African continent? East Asia? South Asia? Latin America? I would venture to guess many, if not most, would be at a loss to produce even one name. Even sadder, I would bet many artistic directors from mainstream theaters would not fare much better in this regard. This is a systemic problem. We are obsessed with ourselves and we are conditioned to think that “our” stories are best summed up by white men or the occasional woman, Latino or African American allowed to join the club. There should be more men and women of color running theaters. And not just theaters that cater to their own communities or tell their own stories, but major theaters. And the programming should reflect not only the shifting demographics of the U.S. but the world in which the U.S. exists and often imposes its will on. Perhaps if there was more funding for the arts and arts education as opposed to the defense budget (the latter proposed to be over $500 billion in 2014) we could better address these disparities. Perhaps then the smaller, more radical and diverse theaters would be able to build alliances instead of having to compete against each other for limited private and public funding for the arts. In talking to people who run these kinds of theaters one gets the impression of people fighting over the crumbs after the adults or the masters of the house have eaten.
JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
IK: I think there is a lot going on in the Middle East. A lot of upheaval means a lot of revolutionary work, but also a lot of obstacles. We must seek out theater artists from the Middle East, and not just ones whose work and beliefs reinforce U.S. policy decisions. We have much to learn from them and their work.
In terms of Arab American and Middle Eastern American theater, there is a growing number of writers and actors out there who are not afraid to say where they are from. I am pretty sure that is a new development. And it is an encouraging one. But we are all still finding the courage to be dangerous in a very intimidating environment. Dissent is doubly scary when you are Arab or Muslim. And the fact is that there are much more lucrative careers to be made as “safe Arabs” or “safe Iranians” etc. This is true whether we are playwrights or actors or directors. I talked about writing “moderate” play above and there are many actors I know who are making livings playing terrorists on TV and in film. Many of these people are super talented; certainly too talented and too smart to play “falafel stand owner #1” or “terrorist #2”. And they don’t like it. They don’t like playing these roles but that is what is out there for them and that is one of the only ways to make a proper living as an actor, so in one sense, who can blame them. Some refuse, of course. But I have at times had real trouble casting Arab-Americans in my plays, for example, because they are all trying out for these more lucrative supporting TV and film roles. Some of them get cast in good roles, but the majority of them are put in a box. I have heard someone say to me that they have seen every one of their Middle Eastern actor friends die some horrible death as a terrorist on screen. It is a joke, but it is also true, and it is not OK. We all deserve much better than that. For instance, what if Middle Eastern actors and writers publicly and en masse refused to take part in these humiliating projects? I suppose there would be a lot of unemployed Middle Eastern artists as a result, and the industry would surely find other swarthy-looking folks to fill-in as “sleeper cell member #5” or whatever is needed on a given day. But this is a question we should consider. It is one of many questions we should all be thinking about.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
IK: Hire diverse leadership and staff. Include plays from around the world and from writers from diverse communities here in the U.S. in mainstage programming. There are many things but nothing will really change while it is still lucrative (or perceived to be lucrative) to be safe and normative and to never question power. We should aspire to a theater that is full of dissent and whose goal is not primarily to be lucrative but to be substantive and dangerous and new.
Born in Beirut and raised in Chicago, Ismail Khalidi is a Palestinian-American playwright, actor and author. His plays include Truth Serum Blues (Pangea World Theater), Sabra Falling, Final Status, and the award-winning Tennis in Nablus (Alliance Theatre), which had its world premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 2010.
Khalidi is currently co-editing an anthology of Palestinian plays due out in 2014. His writing, ranging from poetry to political analysis, has appeared in Mizna, American Theatre magazine, The Daily Beast and The Nation. He holds an MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.