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These are bad times and there is a very real potential that in a few short weeks this may become the worst of times. One of the predominant issues driving that assessment is the general American public's view of Muslims, immigration, and terrorism. While it cannot be claimed that most people are shy or reticent to express their opinions on these topics, it is rare to experience a discussion that is calm, articulate, and funny presented by those who have endured both blatant and poorly disguised discrimination based on their religious beliefs. Carolina Performing Arts brought us Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity as a window into the personal lives of five twentysomething Muslim American citizens and their experiences growing up in a post-9/11 United States.
Written and directed by Ping Chong, Beyond Sacred is the latest edition of a series of nearly fifty community-specific oral history theatre works known as Undesirable Elements. Basically, these are real-life testimonies from members of varying communities, some narrowly focused and others with millions of members. Since its premiere at the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in New York City in April, 2015, Beyond Sacred has endeavored to give an honest and reasonable voice as an antidote to misinformation, screaming, and hatred.
Even with the breaking news of explosives going off in New York and New Jersey the very same day as the performance, it was a surprisingly low-key, sedate, and polite audience both in and outside Memorial Hall on the UNC Chapel Hill campus. Your ticket got you into the auditorium without any bag search or metal detector scan. It was a large audience, although I was to learn later that an overwhelming majority were UNC students attending as a class requirement. The stage consisted of five chairs in front of a music stand with a microphone and light. There was a screen behind that sparingly changed some lighting and projected abstract designs. There were no identifiable images thrust at us — this production was 100% spoken monologues.
It started off with a fast-paced sort of "did you know…" recitation of trivia regarding accomplishments by Muslim-Americans throughout US history – quite interesting, since it was all news to me and, I suspect, nearly everyone else. Like a clicker changing a displayed photo, each change of speaker was indicated by a sharp clapping of all five actors. This "feature" lasted the entire production, and it wore off its welcome rather quickly. This was a sort of preamble and then we moved into an alternating, chronological examination of each of these person's lives and what it was like living in America as a Muslim.
In keeping with one of the basic principles of Beyond Sacred (that being a Muslim is not one monolithic thing), the five real Muslims/actors represented as wide of a disparity and variation on life experiences and relationship to their religion as you could imagine. Maha Syed, at 29 the oldest of the group, is a brilliant, high-achiever who has lived all over the world, yet constantly has to explain who/what she is. The other woman is Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, who wears the traditional hijab, yet describes a typical American girl upbringing. Ferdous Deqhan, born in Kabul Afghanistan with direct experience of the horrors of the Taliban, is probably the most serious and observant Muslim of the group. Kadim Herring grew up in several Southern cities where a Muslim was as rare as a Martian. He is probably the most stereotypically American, as far as allegiance to a religion, in that he is not a practicing Muslim but he likes to think he is observant of the good principles the religion espouses. Finally, there was Amir Khafagy, a Puerto-Rican/Egyptian mix who refers to his ethnicity as Arab-Rican. He grew up in Queens, sounds like it, and tended towards the funny wise-guy, especially with his tales of working at Chuck E Cheese.
So, there you have it. The evening proceeded with alternating brief vignettes about life as a Muslim in America, particularly in the non-shadow of the crumpled World Trade Center towers. It was not terribly new or surprising that they were treated that way, but it was told in a manner that varied from eliciting great empathy for their plight as well as some very funny stories. The only "action" in this 70-minute production was when the stage darkened and the five actors switched seats several times in what resembled musical chairs.
While I enjoyed Beyond Sacred (speaking just as a theatrical experience) as mostly an example of good storytelling by well-modulated actors, I question who the target audience is. My sense is that they are preaching to the choir and that virtually everyone in attendance was a non-"deplorable" who knew that not all Muslims are terrorists, that an entire group should not be blamed for the abhorrent actions of a miniscule minority, and that the idea that all Muslims should be deported is reprehensible. Have any minds been changed? Has hatred and discrimination been lessened as a result of Beyond Sacred? I don't know the answer, but if it is negative, then it is just reduced to another pleasant "let me tell you about my life" session that leaves the needle at the same position.