(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.
LAMEECE ISSAQ: I’m an actor, playwright, and the Artistic Director and co-founder of Noor Theatre, a company dedicated to supporting, developing and presenting the work of theater artists of Middle Eastern descent.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
LI: Primary Arab-American or Palestinian-American. My background and culture has influenced my work a great deal. I started writing and acting for the New York Arab American Comedy Festival in 2004, and I was THRILLED to meet folks of similar backgrounds who were artists/comics/actors/directors/writers. I lost my mind! It was like coming home, really. From there, I connected with these terrific artists, and we created different work, or were getting out into the New York theater scene and being cast in plays where Arab artists were called for. Eventually I wrote and co-authored FOOD AND FADWA with Jacob Kader (a Palestinian American filmmaker). It’s the story of a single, Palestinian woman living in Occupied Bethlehem, who escapes the more difficult aspects of her life by pretending to have a cooking show. There is an intersection between politics, culture and tradition that happen in the play that is very much influenced by the connection I have to my family and culture. Eventually, I would establish Noor Theatre with Maha Chehlaoui and Nancy Vitale, two close friends and collaborators.
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?
LI: My first real professional New York gig was in David Hare’s STUFF HAPPENS at the Public Theater. I played the Palestinian Academic—and so yeah, they were looking for someone who could jump in and portray the part authentically. It was a terrific opportunity and a way into the NYC theater scene for sure. On the flip side, it seemed as an actor, the only things I would ever audition for were Arab parts, so, ethnicity can lead to some pigeonholing—something we see all the time with people of color (and sometimes those parts are negative portrayals, ie terrorists etc.). But aside from being an actor, as a writer and now producer with Noor, doors have definitely been opened. I think the interest in Arabs and Middle Easterners and their stories is growing, so I am grateful to represent the culture in some small way, and do what I can to support these other artistic voices. That professionals in the entertainment community are responding positively right now is great, but like I said, it can work both ways.
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?
LI: Again, that can work two ways. On one hand, it is very important for people to tell their own stories, especially if they are up against racism, stereotyping and misperception. That’s when the maligned community needs to step up and say, okay, we are taking these stories back, we are changing the dialogue. We have to be able to tell our side, express our perspectives and universalize our experiences. It’s very necessary, I believe. But we can’t stay there. We have to then expand beyond our community and create lasting and sustainable relationships with other artists and organizations. Co-producing and co-creating is an opportunity to reach a wider audience, and allow the work to be a larger part of the American culture. But if we are only telling these stories for ourselves and our own communities we are in danger of being isolated or maybe not taken seriously. “Oh, that’s the Arab theater.” Ok, well, yes, it is and we are proud to be that, and it’s positive to do the work for your community—absolutely, but to really make an impact it has to have wider reach. Of course, the other part is to be gaining your audience because of the quality of your work and not just the ethnic part. We have to do quality work and continue to refine our skills and talents as artists. And when people succeed in doing great work, they create the path for other artists. Much paved the way for Noor to exist.
JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
LI: It’s growing. I’m proud that Noor co-produced FOOD AND FADWA with New York Theatre Workshop as a part of their main stage season last spring. Golden Thread in San Francisco does a terrific festival called the Re-Orient Festival; Silk Road has been at it for many years, and is also doing great stuff. The Graduate Center at CUNY is doing some really exciting translations of medieval Egyptian plays and more current Syrian plays with visiting scholars from overseas. More and more artists are putting their work out there—Mona Mansour, Betty Shamieh, Najla Said, Ismail Khalidi—there are so many and we’re growing. We definitely have our work cut out for us, and I hope to see our theater organizations continue to grow and get more funding so that we can all support the work that is coming at us. It’s inspiring, but we have lots to do.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
LI: Take on these writers and actors and directors as artists in residence. Include their work in their main stage seasons. Commission them to write or devise work. Cast Middle Eastern actors in a number of ways, not just in Middle Eastern parts. As I said before, it’s imperative that our work be integrated so we can reach a wider audience, have more opportunities, and really start to change our national dialogue about the Middle East and its people.
Lameece Issaq: As an actor and playwright, Lameece has been a member of the Middle Eastern community of artists for almost ten years. During that time, she met and cultivated relationships with fellow actors, playwrights, and directors all seeking to express their viewpoints in a post 9/11 world. Lameece wrote and co-authored her first full-length play, Food and Fadwa, with artistic collaborator Jacob Kader—also of Middle Eastern descent. New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) nurtured the development of the piece for five years, and invited both Jake and Lameece to several Artist Residencies and to become members of the Usual Suspect artist development program. This relationship with NYTW would eventually fuel the creation of Noor Theatre (where the company is one of two Companies-in-Residence today) and lead to a joint production of Food and Fadwa, between the two companies, as a part of NYTW 2011-2012 main stage season. Because of Lameece’s work with both the Middle Eastern community as well as NYTW, she was in a prime position to co-found Noor with fellow collaborators, Maha Chehlaoui and Nancy Vitale, creating a home foundation for the ever-expanding, talented Middle Eastern artistic community. As the Artistic Director of Noor, Lameece feels a sense of responsibility to her fellow artists to make sure they feel supported and at home developing and sharing their work within the Noor family.
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. jacquelinelawton.com