Authenticity, Exceptions and Ambivalence

by Najla Said

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

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(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.

NAJLA SAID:  I am an actress and a writer.  In 2010, I wrote and performed a solo show (Palestine) about my lifelong struggle with identity after finding myself pigeon holed as an “Arab American” actress again and again.  The show ran Off-Broadway for 8 weeks and was sold out almost every night.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

NS:  I talk about this issue a lot in Palestine.  I am an American; the only passport I have ever had is an American one, I was born in America, and have lived here all of my life.  My mother is from Lebanon and my late father was from Palestine, but he was also born an American citizen and he left the Middle East to study here when he was just 14 years old.   I was raised in New York City and more than anything I consider myself a quintessential New Yorker.  When I was about 4 years old, my father published a work of literary criticism called “Orientalism,” which helped usher in the field of Post-Colonial studies and was often cited in arguments espousing politically correct terms such as “African-American”, “Asian-American” etc.  My father also spoke out about Palestinian human rights and was on television news programs a great deal.   Since he became arguably the most well known “Palestinian-American,”  I didn’t have a say in deciding what I was.  But I always thought that was a weird designation, especially since I am only half Palestinian, and most of my father’s family in the Middle East lived in Lebanon and Jordan.

I also never felt “Arab-American.”  There was something about that phrase that always struck me as off–”Arab-Americans” seemed to be people who were more assimilated than I was, and who lived surrounded by other Arab-Americans (my idea of them was the communities in Detroit and Dearborn Michigan.)

I grew up in Manhattan, and attended private school among Jews and WASPs.  My parents maintained a strong connection to their culture, language and traditions, but we always seemed to have two separate identities in my family-we were fully Arab and fully American, and I could never explain what that meant.  I still struggle to explain it but I tried in my play to do just that–show why I have such ambivalence toward the idea of cultural identifications, but also show why I am very proud of being a Palestinian Lebanese American.  In many ways I feel I have been given a platform and have a unique voice to help educate others on the misunderstood culture whence my parents come, and so I have tried to do my part.  It is hard though, because it becomes almost impossible to be seen as anything but an “Arab-American” theatre artist.

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?

NS: The first decision I made was not to change my name.  That was the first awakening I had to how I would be received in the professional world.  When I started acting professionally, I would send out headshots and get very few return calls unless someone was looking for an “ethnic” actor.  I truly believe that just looking at my name in print made casting directors think I spoke with an accent or something.  I considered sending out 50 headshots with the name “Nancy Smith” on them and 50 with my real name on them just to see what would happen, but I couldn’t even stomach the thought of writing a different name on my headshot just to see what would happen.  I guess my attachment to my culture and heritage has always been strong.  I didn’t think I was making any sort of statement at the time; I just wanted to be accepted as me.

When I began auditioning, I noticed that casting directors would be confused and say to me “you’re not ethnic!” when I walked in the door.  I have white skin and black hair and brown eyes but I speak with an American (to be blunt: I can imagine someone calling it an “upscale white girl” accent.) In truth, this sort of thing happened less in the world of theatre and more in the TV and film arena since so much of what is perceived as “race” on camera has to do with brown skin.

Yet even before 9/11 I was often cast as an Arab woman onstage.  I was OK with  that, and still am, because I enjoy bringing authenticity to roles and rehearsals.  I also speak Arabic well enough to sound fluent and I know the culture really well. I even began working with other Arab American theatre artist of my own accord, because it seemed a really interesting way to explore my identity through my work, especially considering the political climate of the early 2000s.

But then it became “too much.”  I am very frustrated that I never seem to get called in for characters that aren’t somehow Arab, or written as “ethnic.”

I want to audition for and be in Shakespeare plays that are not set “in present day war-torn Iraq.”

In addition, again, to be blunt:  authenticity is often sought but then strange exceptions are made again and again.  South Asian and Iranian actresses are often cast in Arab roles on stage, which doesn’t bother me at all in terms of the fact that I am a proponent of color-blind casting, but does bother me in that those actors are of a different race altogether so in many ways there is no way to tell if they’re being cast because they are the best for the role or because the person casting doesn’t know the difference.  That can be a little frustrating and annoying (I am sure an Iranian actress would say the same about an Arab American being cast as an Iranian character, by the way.)

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?

NS: I have learned the hard way that only the marginalized person can tell the marginalized person’s story. I don’t mean that that is what I want to be the case, I mean that in the sense that audiences are less likely to “believe” the circumstances if the story isn’t told by someone who has lived it, and people of the particular race being depicted take issue with every little detail that seems different from his or her own individual experience if written by an outsider.

However, and this is the basic thesis of my dad’s book “Orientalism,” -we (the “Other”) should be telling our own story and defining ourselves through our story telling.

JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

NS: It has been very exciting to have been a pioneer in this area, at least in the United States.  Actors and playwrights and directors who may have not really identified as Middle Eastern before, are embracing that heritage and jumping into the fold with their own ideas and insights.  And while most of us really want to be able to do anything, play any part, write any character, we also all feel that it is in some ways a duty to help depict the realities of our varied and massive culture and society.  One of the best things that has happened is that there have been all these solo shows written by Arab-American women-myself, Heather Raffo, Leila Buck, to name just a few.  In the Western popular imagination, the Arab woman is veiled, silent and mysterious.  In reality, this “Arab woman” is like no woman any of us have ever actually met.  Since the roles we audition for are limited to Arab, and since those roles, when written by someone not familiar with the culture, tend to be one dimensional, we have felt empowered and emboldened to tell the incredibly varied stories of our mothers, grandmothers, and sisters by writing our own work, and giving ourselves jobs.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

NS: I honestly do not know.  I wish I could answer this question.  In my experience, Arabs and Arab Americans don’t have as much of a theatre going tradition, but then outreach is often done through religious and community centers which really only target those who are Muslim.

So I don’t know the answer…

Honestly, so many of these questions are more about class.  In America, theatre is not a popular art form like film is.  It is not as accessible to the masses, and I think that plays an enormous role in determining who gets to see things.  I think that is the only place to start.

Nalja SaidNajla Said is an actress and writer. Her solo show, Palestine, ran Off-Broadway for 8 sold out weeks in 2010, and she continues to tour colleges and high schools across the country performing it. She has worked onstage in other plays regionally, internationally and all over New York, and in film and television. Najla trained at The Actor’s Center and The Public Theatre. She is a graduate of Princeton University. She is currently finishing a memoir based on her solo show. It will be released in 2013 by Riverhead (Penguin) Books. In 2010 she was named one of the “Top Forty Feminists Under Forty” by The Feminist Press.

Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.