Building Alliances Across Communities

by Andrea Assaf

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Building Alliances Across Communities

(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.

ANDREA ASSAF:  I’m a writer, performer and director.  As founding Artistic Director of Art2Action Inc. — which supports new work by women, artists of color, and queer or trans-identified artists — I also produce, curate and present.  I do a bit of everything that needs to get done, in order to create, develop, support  and share original theatre and interdisciplinary performances.  I describe my writing as text for performance, because the forms I work in can range from poetry or Spoken Word, to playwrighting, to the complex relationship to text that emerges in devised theatre, or multidisciplinary collaborations.  As a creator, I sometimes do solo work, or collaborative ensemble work, or community-based co-creation.  It all depends on the partnerships, the goals of the project, and the aesthetics that emerge from the encounter of diverse artists on the creative team.

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

AA:  I identify as Arab American.  This really shifted for me after 9/11.  Prior, my identity was more ambiguous, because I grew up partly in rural Pennsylvania, where there was no Arab community for at least 100 miles; and later, in 1990s New York City, I was more focused cosmopolitanism and hybridity.  But when 9/11 happened, the winds of suspicion shifted suddenly and blew hard in my direction.  It was a wake-up call.  It was also a new moment of identity formation, I believe, for the Arab American community on a national level.  All of the sudden, we were the spotlighted “other” and we needed to come together in new ways, to support the most vulnerable in our communities, and to help each other make sense of what was happening politically, and how to respond.  Ironically, I think 9/11 accelerated the development of an Arab American artistic community, and national networks — such as RAWI, the Radius of Arab American Writers, and DIWAN, the arts festival produced by the Arab American National Museum — as well as our visibility in existing arts networks and programs.

Of course, it’s complicated.  There’s as much diversity of national/cultural specificity in the Arab American community as there is in any “community” that is based on enormous geographic regions and migration.  Specifically, I am Lebanese American.  Broadly, I also identify under the expanding umbrella of Asian American (because the Levantine region of the “Middle East” is, after all, West Asia), and I also identify as a person of color.  The latter is complicated because of the historical legal debates over whether Arabs in the U.S. should be categorized as “White” or not.  Some Arab Americans do consider themselves white, and enjoy white privilege in this country … and others definitely do not, and never have.  For me, in the post-9/11 United States, identifying as a person of color is about aligning the contemporary struggles of the Arab American community against racism, profiling, political persecution, deportation, misrepresentation, etc. with these same struggles that all communities of color in this country have faced.  It’s about building alliances across communities, so that we can work together — through our art, and with our cultural expressions — toward a more just and peaceful world.

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?

AA: Well, being an artist of color in the U.S. is always a double-edged sword.  Occasionally, you get treated as the exotic new thing, and special initiatives might open a few doors for a period of time.  But systemically, across the nation, artists of color and organizations that serve communities of color are vastly under-resourced.  White privilege and Euro-centric aesthetics still dominate the U.S. performing arts field, despite the rapidly changing demographics of our nation.  And if you’re a woman of color, you get the gender disparity in pay and production opportunities on top of it.  Add a dash of queer, a pinch of experimental, and stir-in political content, and well, that’s a recipe for a pretty challenging life in the arts.

Has it stopped me from creating work?  No.  Has it made it harder to access resources to support the work?  Sometimes, yes.  Are there lots of allies in the field, and in the funding community?  Absolutely.  Is gender/cultural equity still an enormous problem?  Absolutely.

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?

AA:  I believe that culturally specific, gender and identity specific spaces are important for communities or identity groups that have experienced historical or political violence or oppression.  When one’s identity or safety is constantly called in to question, spaces dominated by the privileged majority don’t always feel welcoming or supportive.  Sometimes we need a place where we don’t have to explain who we are every five minutes, or justify our beliefs or cultural practices; sometimes we just need a place where we can express ourselves freely and feel safe.  Sometimes we need a break from translating.  Sometimes we need to have intra-community dialogue, before we’re ready to speak publically or communicate  across identities.

And yes, absolutely, people should be supported to tell their own stories, and the stories of the communities they feel most a part of, if that’s what they’re inspired to do.  Self-representation is a form of agency and power.  If we want to change this situation of cultural inequity, we have to change our systems of support.  We have to support agency, voice, self-representation, and power among the communities, and artists, that have had the least access previously.

Also, we have to stop supporting misrepresentation.  Too often, when artists tell the stories of communities different from their own — especially if they come from a position of privilege and attempt to speak for, or represent, communities of less privilege — they end up expressing their own internalized prejudices, or at least misconceptions, about the people they’re trying to represent.  If an artist hasn’t spent real time, doing deep personal work, to unlearn the prejudices and assumptions of the society s/he is from, those prejudices and assumptions are likely to be reiterated in the work s/he creates.  You know the old writer’s adage?  Write about what you know.  Start from who you are.  Excavate … There’s a lifetime of material in there.

Personally, I chose to create an organization that is not rooted in any singular identity or community, but that supports the self-representation, and collaborative co-creation, of artists from multiple communities, with complex and varying identities.  Again, this is about building alliances, equity and support, and exploring aesthetics through diverse creative encounters.  That’s valuable, too.

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

AA:  I’m excited about the state of “Middle Eastern Theatre” right now.  (Even though I’m a little uncomfortable with that label — naming is very complicated, and needs to be as inclusive as possible, without feeding unhelpful conflations.)   I feel we’re in a period of emergence, growth, and connection, through formal and informal networks.  I’m excited that we are a growing community within the arts field, and that we’re starting to be recognized as such.  But we have to think carefully about sustainability and growth, so that we can keep doing our work when the political spotlight is no longer on us.  Because the impact of these years of war and backlash, on our communities, will long out-last any temporary initiatives or cultural curiosities.  We have to think strategically about positive, long-term change — both in the arts field, and in creating a more just society.

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

AA:  Hire more people of color, in positions of actual power.  I don’t mean just one or two staff, I mean let’s be serious about the demographic shifts that happening in our cities, states and nation.  I live in Florida, which is about to be a majority people of color state any day now.  If you’re a theatre in one of those locations, does your programming actually reflect that?  Does the leadership of your organization reflect that?  If you’re in a majority white community, is racism a problem in your town?  What are you doing about that?  Are you trying to be a majority-white, Euro-centric program, or are you doing that subconsciously?  What are the justifications for not changing whatever you’re holding on to?  Whether you’re a culturally-specific theatre or not, is gender equity a problem in your organization or programming?  Again, what are you doing to  change  that?  Build a truly diverse artistic program, staff and board, in all ways — in terms of race, gender, class, sexuality, culture, national origin, language, physical ability, and aesthetics.  And not just diverse, but progressive.  (Identity certainly doesn’t dictate values.)  If you’re serious about wanting to better serve diverse communities, then you need a diverse team of folks who are genuinely committed to inclusion and equity.  Audiences and communities go where they feel represented, welcomed, and respected — not just once a year, but consistently.  That means some people who currently have power will have to step back, make room, and let go.  And some people will have to come forward, and be supported to do so.  Ask yourself, often:  are you just talking the talk?  Or are you really working for positive change?

Andrea Assaf is a Lebanese American writer, performer, director & cultural organizer. She’s the founding Artistic Director of Art2Action Inc., and co-founder of the National Institute for Directing & Ensemble Creation (with Pangea World Theater). She is a former Artistic Director of New WORLD Theater (2004-09), and former Program Associate for Animating Democracy (2001-04). Her performance work ranges from ensemble and interdisciplinary collaborations, to community-based arts, to spoken word. Andrea has a Masters degree in Performance Studies from NYU. Awards: 2011 NPN Creation Fund, 2010 Princess Grace Award for Theatre, 2007 Hedgebrook residency. She currently serves on the Executive Committee of Alternate ROOTS, the Board of CAATA (Consortium of Asian American Theatres & Artists), and the International Management Committee of WPI (Women Playwrights International). She is a member of RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers).

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.