On Sept. 9, 2001, I went to the downtown L.A. offices of Cornerstone Theater Company for a sort of mutual interview/audition process with several theater makers who’d been enlisted for a “festival of faith,” a series of short, limited-run theater works that would be created with various local communities of faith: Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Baha’i. After covering and enjoying Cornerstone’s work in L.A. since they’d arrived in 1992, and having been stunt-cast as myself in their Taper holiday show in 2000, I had decided to “join the dance,” as someone later put it to me, as a musician/composer for a piece in this month-long festival. The festival was designed as a sort of ice breaker for the troupe’s four-year “faith cycle,” in which they would create full-length theater works with each of those communities, and build to a final “bridge show” on the subject of how faith “unites and divides us.”
I recall little about the projects I talked about/auditioned for that day, except that my interest was most piqued by the Muslim project: It was going to be staged at New Horizon School in Pasadena, with a group of a few dozen kids aged 5-11. I think the director, a Dutch woman named Antonia Smits, probably mentioned then that she’d be adapting the mysterious Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds. I knew next to nothing about Islam and little about the Sufi tradition, except that I had a few records by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
You might see where this is going: After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington two days later, Cornerstone’s interfaith work acquired an almost frightening urgency and timeliness. My own interest in the Muslim project intensified, and not simply out of academic curiosity but out of a real question: Could the simple act of making theater bridge the divide that threatened to open wide among cultures and people living ostensibly peacefully together in this free country?
It almost didn’t; the Muslim component of this faith festival was nearly scuttled due to security concerns on the part of New Horizon School. But before I knew it I was in rehearsals at an elementary school with about half a dozen adult actors, a gaggle of eager children, and an open-tuned blue guitar. The experience would have a spiritual and theological dimension for me; Attar’s poem is a lot about shedding worldly desires and finding our precious treasure within, on a path that ironically requires a long journey outside oneself to discover (a paradox I tried to capture in the lyric: “We are very far from Simurgh/He is very close to us”).
But of course the most immediate and striking dimension of the experience was social and cultural, as I spent weeks teaching my songs to boys and girls, and meeting their parents, at a school that looked and felt a lot like my own elementary school in Phoenix, Ariz., except for the prayer mats and the “names of God” prints, and varying degrees of hijab (I learned that the school, as it catered to Muslims from a variety of traditions, had an open policy on this count, and I was particularly intrigued to meet the glamourous, uncovered Saudi mother of one young girl who apparently chose of her own accord to be covered).
Ramadan happened while we worked on the show; the youngest of the children weren’t required to fast, and the rest were pretty squirrely and distracted for a week. But the biggest cultural conflict the production faced was that its opening weekend conflicted with the opening of the first Harry Potter movie. Still, we had a good turnout, and I look back on my time working on a show Smits would call They Simply Said Enter with unremittingly warm feelings toward my collaborators and the children, parents, and administrators at New Horizon School.
Outside the walls of the school auditorium where we rehearsed and performed, it was an intense time: The U.S. and its allies went to war with Afghanistan, the Patriot Act was signed into law, and, on an entirely personal front, my mother died quite unexpectedly (I missed a few rehearsals, but I went on with her in my heart).
So I have little to add to the suddenly resurgent and unutterably painful controversy about Islam’s place in America, which saddens and disgusts me in almost equal measure. But I can report from my own experience working and making theater with Muslims in the fraught aftermath of 9/11. For what it’s worth, my experience was enriching, even healing. It answered, for me at the time anyway, the question of whether theater–and collaboration and dialogue more generally–could bridge the divide between cultures with a resounding yes. I have absolutely no doubt that dialogue and collaboration–and while we’re at it, maybe some theater, as well–give the same answer today, as well.
Rob Weinert-Kendt is associate editor of American Theatre magazine. He also co-runs the site StageGrade.com and is father to a strapping infant named Oliver.