The Dramaturgy of Political Violence

theatre

Approximately one hundred and fifty years ago, a remarkable play featuring a Muslim character who hates himself and who embodies what those in power at the time considered to be the villainous opposite of what was considered civilized, true and just, ran on New York stages for several weeks, as it did in other English-speaking cities on both sides of the Atlantic.  Audiences in New York – one of the financial and cultural capitals in the Anglophone world – were aghast yet stimulated by the depiction of this Muslim protagonist. Much English-language debate, discussion, accusation and polemic in both North America and Great Britain emerged about Islam, those who display violence in their rebellions against imperial power, violence emanating out of self-hatred, and the precarious and tenuous situation of white women. Such a description may prompt contemporary audiences to think of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play currently running in over 50 professional theatres in Europe and North America, in which audiences are treated to a violent, self-hating South Asian Muslim male protagonist. Actually, the play in question is melodramatist Dion Boucicault’s Jessie Brown, performed during the Indian Mutiny/Rebellions in 1857-58 and staged in New York and Denver, and in various cities in England in 1858.

In order to analyze the fragile and contested role of Muslims as they have been represented on stage and screen, it would be helpful to note the history of South Asians in the U.S. theatre space, from the 1858 moment to the present, with an emphasis on how tracking the figure of Muslims opens up a critique of the limits of recognition within U.S. theatre spaces.

 

Between Arab and South Asian

In our contemporary age, tropes about Islam and Muslims in the U.S. frequently conflate “Muslim” with “Arab,” whereas the vast majority of Muslims in the world, historically and in the present day, exist in South and Southeast Asia, and the experiences of South and Southeast Asian Muslims are quite particular to a context of syncretistic identities, minoritization, and a multi-religious cultural landscape. In U.S. theatre, South Asians have frequently been cast as Arabs and rarely the other way around (with a few exceptions), yielding a particular asymmetry in the representational reservoir of Muslims in the U.S. imagination. It is hard to find images of specifically South Asian Muslims – qua South Asian and Muslim – and their particular identities and cultures outside a Security and Terror maintenance complex, embodied earlier by Boucicault’s play.

With the appearance of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, as well as plays like The Who and the What and The Invisible Hand, the U.S. space does now feature characterizations of South Asian Muslims on U.S. stages, authorized by and executed by Muslims. Certainly Akhtar did not singlehandedly bring into being theatre by and about Muslims – many artists and organizations (including Chicago’s Silk Road Rising, New York’s Noor Theatre and San Francisco’s Golden Thread) have been doing this for a number of years now, before and after 9/11. It is rather that the recognition of this particular play about a self-hating South Asian Muslim and his violence in New York, the metropolitan centre of American theatre, compels an identification of the broader history behind the role of Muslims in U.S. theatre history.

 

South Asian Muslims and U.S. Theatre History

This brings me back to Dion Boucicault’s play, Jessie Brown, or the Relief at Lucknow, which depicts the lives of Europeans in India during the 1857-58 rebellion at the time of the siege at Lucknow. Although Boucicault conflates events and personages from Kanpur and Lucknow, the narrative follows what most Anglophone readers would have encountered in the news, since he wrote the play entirely from news reports. The play, based just outside Lucknow, features a group of fearing-the-worst Europeans, including the young and single Jessie Brown, a Scottish girl, and Nana Sahib, a historical Hindu Brahmin figure, presented here as a fantastical, fanatical composite Muslim who happens upon Mrs. Campbell, the widow of an officer. He manages to express his love for her and interest in her for his harem. Her rejection of him sets the stage for a melodrama, including brave plans for the Europeans (including a non-violent Christian cleric) to defeat the Indians in their rebellion. Though Nana Sahib is defined by Islam, he does ask, “Did Allah send the Briton here to make us slaves, to clutch us beneath his lion’s paw, and to devour the land? Inshallah! The voiceless word of Allah has swept over the people, and it says, ‘Sufferers, arise, ye shall be free!’”[1] The final third act shows the Europeans awaiting sure execution, with some experiencing delirium, including Jessie who has visions of Scottish highlanders saving them. Lo and behold, the Scottish highlanders do save them, and the Indians are defeated.

Jessie Brown contributes to a discourse that became hegemonic in powerful circles throughout the Anglophone world of the nineteenth century: namely that Muslims were aggrieved in the 1857-58 rebellion because of their religion being violated, and were the ones leading the way toward the violent uprising. The nineteenth-century centrality of religion in understanding the resistance to power – another continuity that lasts to the present-day condition of Muslims in the post-colonial world – opens up a complex history of colonialism; but what is important for a history of theatre is that, from this point onward through the mid-twentieth century, South Asian Muslims after 1858 have occupied a security-state framework (embodied in Boucicault’s representation), if they are represented at all. What also endures is the elusive quest for white women, and the self-hatred of Muslims, as depicted by Achmet (portrayed as the evil Muslim henchman to the evil Nana Sahib in Boucicault’s play), who concurs with the assertion that “these black rascals (laying siege) are mere scum” by responding: “We are scum.”[2]

If we move forward 150 years to Disgraced, we find a play meant to be staged for approximately ninety minutes without an intermission. Spread out over four scenes, written to take place in New York City in 2011-12, the play opens with Amir, a 40-year-old South Asian Muslim American corporate lawyer, dressed in a blazer, shirt and tie on top, along with boxers and no trousers. Amir is posing for his white American wife, Emily, a young and rising artistic talent, painting a portrait to be called Study after Velazquez’s Moor, based on the original Diego Velazquez painting, Portrait of Juan De Pareja, a Moorish slave in the seventeenth century. The audience learns that Emily has been motivated to paint this portrait after both of them experienced an episode of racism directed against Amir in a restaurant. Reflecting on that episode of twenty-first century racism, she is motivated to explore the gap between how people such as Juan De Pareja in the seventeenth century, and Amir in her own life, have been perceived. In the initial scene, the audience also learns about Amir as a cutthroat, ambitious lawyer, and meets his nephew, Hussein, who has changed his name to Abe Jensen, to ward off racism. As a young teenager politicized primarily by harassment and racism, Abe/Hussein displays a commitment and relationship with his Muslim community, a relationship Amir doesn’t share as a secular apostate who enjoys pork, booze, and in his terms, “intelligence.” Amir explains his worldview to Abe/Hussein by sharing a story of his boyhood, when his Muslim mother found out about his Jewish girlfriend and tried to instil in him a hatred for Jews. Ever since then, when he realized that a Muslim identity for him involved such hatreds, he decided to abandon Islam completely.

Two weeks later, Amir faces a personal crisis when he is misrepresented in the New York Times as working on a legal team defending an imam – one whom Emily and Abe/Hussein had been imploring Amir to help – as the imam from their local community accused of terrorist actions. Amir is aghast at being associated with an imam, particularly seeing how it might affect his Jewish-owned law firm, where he would soon be considered for partnership. During this scene, we also meet Isaac, a Whitney curator who was considering Emily’s work for an upcoming exhibition. Here Emily’s interest in Islam, and particularly the history of Islamic art and its impact on Western artistic traditions, piques Isaac’s interest in her work as an artist.

The third scene opens with the set of tensions established earlier beginning to unravel as the scene unfolds, from Emily’s nervous expectations of positive news from Isaac about a Whitney exhibition, to Amir’s angered entry into the apartment after a long day’s work. Amir recounts (over several glasses of whiskey and after one smashed glass) that the law firm’s partners were investigating his background, asking him about his place of birth, and were no longer interested in offering him a partnership. Given that he changed his name from Amir Abdullah to Amir Kapoor and falsely listed India as his parents’ birthplace, the firm’s leadership suspects that Amir has misrepresented himself. The historical challenge of translating the partition of colonial India, the region of his parent’s birth – Lahore, now Pakistan – becomes a real-life obstacle to his advancement, since the partners now suspect him of hiding his Muslim identity.

To add to the mix of rising tensions, Amir had forgotten that Isaac and his African American wife, Jory, were invited to dinner that evening. Quickly, Amir and Emily prepare for their friends’ arrival and the evening begins unremarkably, accompanied by drinks and pleasantries. The tension runs into new directions when Isaac announces that Whitney is going to accept Emily’s work in an exhibition. At one level this is cause for celebration, but a mention of Emily’s work in progress – her portrait of Amir – sparks the smouldering fires of Amir’s resentment at being ill-treated at his workplace, and spurs him to launch into a few diatribes against Islam as a whole: apostates being punishable by death, the alleged sanctioning of wife-beating in the Qur’an, and other assorted targets in his arsenal against Islam. Each point he makes is countered by Emily (who is aware of the subtle and ambiguous nature of much of the Qur’an and early Islamic tenets usually cited by Islamophobes), and by Amir. The issue that raises tensions to a higher level, though, arises out of Amir’s attempts to explain the tribalism that he feels he was reared by, and which he is still fighting to overcome through his committed apostasy. He explains to Isaac how the tribalism of the Muslim world is matched by the tribalism of Zionist Jews, particularly on the question of Israel and Palestinian conflicts.

Meanwhile, in a private moment, Jory and Isaac reveal that Jory has been offered the partnership and is trying to find a way to tell Amir. As Jory and Amir step out to buy champagne to defuse tensions, Isaac and Emily share a moment alone in which the audience learns of their previous affair. Though Isaac doesn’t push her too hard, he mentions that if she hadn’t cheated with him, she would have likely cheated with someone else. As Isaac tries to kiss Emily, Jory and Amir, fresh from the troubling revelation that Jory will soon become a partner, enter to find Isaac and Emily in an embrace. As this conflict continues to intensify, Amir lashes out at Jory and Isaac, who exit, leaving Amir and Emily alone in their apartment. Finally, as Amir confronts her about her affair with Isaac, he explodes into a rage and hits Emily several times – listed in the published stage directions as “uncontrolled violence as brutal as it needs to be in order to convey the discharge of a lifetime of discreetly-building resentment.”[3]

The fourth and final scene shows Amir packing up the apartment, noticeably single and preparing to move out. Emily and Abe/Hussein enter, with Abe now returning to his given name Hussein, and recounting continued stories of harassment by the FBI. Amir attempts, unsuccessfully, to engage in conversation with Emily (who has dropped the charges of assault), and claims that she had a part to play in how their lives had transformed in their marriage. The play ends with Amir pleading with Emily to acknowledge him, stating: “I just wanted you to be proud of me. I want you to be proud you were with me.”[4] Emily does not respond to this entreaty, says good-bye and leaves the apartment for good. The final image the audience sees is Amir finding the finished version of Study after Velazquez’s Moor, unwrapping it and gazing into the painting, seeing a regal, immaculately dressed version of himself from the waist up.

The protagonist represents the violence of hitting back and striking back to the slave-owner, the imperialist, the racist, and all those violent forces building up inside Amir’s own boiling subjectivity. An interview with Madanis Younis, included in the 2013 published version of the play, discusses how the act of violence at the end is “an act of political violence, that is to say a colored male subject who is acting out on a white female love object through violence, and in a way rife with political valences.”[5] The play’s lack of resolution at the end rests on the playwright’s interest in leaving the resolution to the audience.

Disgraced functions as a benchmark against which we may read historical change. Although many other plays have emerged in the last hundred and fifty years, this play’s recognition commands serious attention. In Disgraced, in the post-9/11 twenty-first century, the Muslim characters are not wearing glorious robes with hanging scimitars and colourful turbans, but turn out to be their globally-situated bourgeois equivalents in the U.S. imagination: violent Muslims whose faith and existential problems are signs of trouble brewing. As one of the characters in the play remarks to Amir after a heated exchange, “there is a reason why they call you people animals.”

In the years between Jessie Brown and Disgraced, much has certainly changed in North American society. After approximately forty years of official exclusion from U.S. citizenship on account of the state-level racialization of Asians in the U.S. and Canada, 1965 became a watershed year because immigration quotas began to include progressively higher numbers of Asians, including South Asians. From the mid-1960s to the present day, South Asians of all religions, particularly South Asian Muslims, have established communities and patterns of integration and visibility in line with the broader changes in North American society.

 

South Asians in North American theatre history

Within North American theatre history, South Asian Muslims have been conspicuously absent in the post-1858 period. The emergence of formal Orientalism was defined primarily through a focus on Sanskrit theatre, with North American universities following European leads, teaching Sanskrit as well as staging Sanskrit plays from the 1890s onward. Arthur W. Ryder’s translation of Sakuntala was first staged at Berkeley in 1907 and in New York in 1905. Ryder’s translation of the Mricchikatikam, or the Little Clay Cart as it is often known in English, was staged in Berkeley in 1907, in New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse in 1924, and in Los Angeles in 1926. During this time, when India gradually came to be associated with Sanskrit and the classical world in the U.S., Muslims from India disappeared for the most part from view on U.S. stages.

In post-1965 theatre history, South Asian Muslim characterizations were planted, such as Shishir Kurup’s 2007 Merchant on Venice, which includes an Indian Muslim (and a Bohri Muslim at that) in the role of Sharukh, the Shylock equivalent whose Indianness and Muslim minoritization feature heavily in the play. Other prominent plays include Rehana Mirza’s 2003 Barriers depicting inter-generational family drama in light of post 9/11 hate crimes against Muslims. Also significant is Wajahat Ali’s 2006 Domestic Crusaders, about a Pakistani-American family in post-9/11 northern California. These plays were all preceded by Aasif Mandvi’s 1996 Sakina’s Restaurant, a one-man show about immigration to the U.S., and significantly, about an Indian Muslim family, which was constructed, written and produced in the 1990s and 2000s. From then on, the emergence of plays like Disgraced, The Who and the What, and The Invisible Hand by Akhtar fit into the history of American theatre and the trajectory from melodrama to naturalism to realism and to our present-day predicament. Such history solidifies a history of assimilation within the history of the U.S., which features the emergence of the bourgeois and of cultural capital and class evidenced in the dinner parties, the politics of the family unit, and the broader critique of political economy. Such history parallels East Asian American, African American, Mexican American, Latino American and Middle Eastern American histories in the U.S. space as a history of assimilation. In light of this history of assimilation, three points of departure enable questions about different histories and potential futures outside of assimilation.

 

Assimilation and Beyond

Are the depictions of Muslims on U.S. stages confirming or challenging canonical guidelines in U.S. theatre? Does the bourgeois emphasis on family, dinner parties, inter-generational conflicts, economic mobility, assimilation into spaces of power and recognition, and critiques of political economy add more content to solidify those canons, or does it transform those canonical reference points?

Second, what role does white female sexuality play in the travails of representing Muslims? The protagonist of Disgraced, like the protagonists of novels like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Zia Rahman’s In Light of What We Know, is a South Asian Muslim, and a key moment for his (and their) life course is the relationship with a white female of status and means, as it was in Jessie Brown. How central must white female sexuality’s power be in determining the range of Muslim characters and narratives in the theatre of today?

Finally, what is the role of South Asia within the conceptualization of a recognizable character as Muslim? In Disgraced, the protagonist is defined by his South Asian placement in the world; this is what allows him to transform himself from Abdullah to Amir, yet the South Asian part of him is understated. There is an interesting relationship and imbalance between the empty South Asianness and the powerful Muslimness that appears in characters such as Abe and Amir, like the narrator of Sakina’s Restaurant and like Bashir in The Invisible Hand (here a British Asian Muslim). Does this imbalance play upon our imaginations? Are there ways to imagine South Asian Muslims without confirming assimilation, security complexes, white female sexuality, and to be blunt, recognition by those in power?

Is there, though, another way to approach our moment in this history, outside of recognition, through a critical genealogy of the present? To do that, we must seriously engage with the topoi of thinkers like Mohandas Gandhi, CLR James, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Ngugi Wa’Thiongo, Albert Memmi, Ali Shariati, David Scott, and all others committed to radical postcolonial critique. Are theatre workers able to break out into the “zone of occult instability” (Fanon) to create a space anew in which the imagination can break free of the framework established for it by a colonial power, or in this case, metropolitan theatre producing power?

The broader historical significance of Disgraced relates to the implications of writing and enacting cultural difference. Approximately thirty years ago when practitioners and critics hotly debated issues like Peter Brook’s staging of the Mahabharata, the baggage of metropolitan theatre practitioners like Brook or Richard Schechner and their alleged or real Orientalism was at stake, whereas now, South Asian and Middle Eastern practitioners, playwrights, actors, producers, critics and scholars in diasporic spaces are active participants, thus reshaping the conversation for the twenty-first century. The broader question for the contemporary world is whether another global crisis – like 1857-58 or 9/11 – will continue to shape our understandings of Islam and our aesthetic horizons related to Islam and Muslims. If not, how do we as Muslims and non-Muslims alike imagine a different future, or will theatre continue to solidify what we already know?

 

[1] Peter Thomson (ed.), Plays by Dion Boucicault (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 122.

[2] Ibid., 103. Boucicault’s character also reflects elements of an anti-colonial critique.

[3] Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013), 75.

[4] Ibid., 87.

[5] Ibid., 92.