Taking Control of the Story: Ping Chong + Company’s "Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity"
“When someone else tells your story, you lose power,” said Amir Khafagy on the portrayal of Muslims in popular culture.
On February 18 at the Power Center in Ann Arbor, UMS presented Ping Chong + Company’s Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity. This interview-based play analyzed the complexities of Muslim identities post 9/11.
Aside from the state-of-the-art projection, light, and sound design, there were no theatrical thrills. No dressings for the set, or costumes, and the performers were storytellers, not trained actors. The script was comprised of their own personal stories, creating a completely raw and enveloping experience. Often interview plays such as The Laramie Project are written based on true stories, but retold by actors. The entire show was performed with the actors sitting in chairs, reading off of scripts. This is to allow non-actors the chance to feel comfortable on stage, and able to tell their story. The script bounces from person to person with interludes of clapping, connecting the performers and audience to the rhythm of the experience.
Although Ping Chong + Company have developed dozens of plays utilizing this “formula,” the bravery of these individuals to take control of their story during heightened political tensions was therapeutic for everyone involved.
The show began in 1947 as the performers told tales of their grandparents and how some, but not all, immigrated to America. Some of the performers were born overseas, some were born in the United States. Despite their different backgrounds with heritage, religion, and race, there were enough common threads of struggle to streamline the performance to a screeching halt in 2001.
Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, born in the U.S., converted to Islam later in her life as a young adult. Barely 20 years old, she was in middle school during 9/11. Already feeling like an outcast, the tragedy made her feel more isolated. After 9/11, more people wanted to know where she was “from.”
Amir Khafagy often emphasized his age throughout his storytelling. Raised by his Egyptian father and Puerto Rican mother, Amir spoke of emotions that sounded complicated even for an adult to process. He struggled with his identity in terms of race and religion starting as early as age 8. Later in the talkback, Amir stated he often hated himself as a child, and just wanted to be like a character on Full House.
Ping Chong + Company often tell stories of struggles like this with over 40 other productions as a part of the Undesirable Elements series. The interview-based shows discuss the real stories of outsiders in a mainstream society. Ping Chong + Company have tackled other topics such as disabilities, children of war, and transgender individuals.
The script was updated for the most recent performance, so it could include the performers’ thoughts on the election and the Muslim travel ban. There was an ominous feeling as the play progressed from 1947 to 2001, knowing it would lead to tales of seclusion and discrimination. Sadly, the same feeling approached as we came closer to 2017.
Ferdous Dehqan, a recent immigrant from Kabul, Afghanistan, has a specific interest in politics and government. He moved to America in 2013 and has never felt more unease in America since the Trump administration.
Maha Syed says she is involved in protests every day. A human rights advocate and feminist, she claims her Muslim faith is the reason she fights for the rights of others. Her command of the stage indicated the performance was yet another means of her ongoing protest.
Kadin Herring, an African-American raised with the Muslim faith, grew up in rural Georgia and Florida. During the talkback after the performance, Kadin said he wanted to be involved in this production because he rarely sees African-American Muslims on TV shows or in popular culture. This is his way of taking control of his story.
Ping Chong + Company will continue to showcase this performance on university campuses throughout the country, and it also briefly mentioned a partnership with the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn. I believe everyone left the theater feeling enlightened and more sympathetic toward the diverse range of experiences in the Muslim community. Although, a few cringe-worthy questions/comments from the audience in the talk-back section reminded us we have a long way to go.
Marissa Conniff is a digital marketing consultant, yoga teacher, and musician.