Identity Nation

by Jamil Khoury

in National Conference

Post image for Identity Nation

(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

Jacqueline Lawton:  What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

Jamil Khoury:  I don’t think I can identity any one challenge as being most significant, but I would say that one of the most important challenges facing the world today is the way in which nations define their national identity.  Questions abound as to what it means to be American or Brazilian, French, Nigerian, Syrian, or Japanese and so on.  As migration patterns continue to increase ethnic, racial and religious diversity within nations and regions, and demographics continue to change, countries are experiencing growing tensions between that which is pluralistic and polycultural on the one hand, and that which is assimilationist and monocultural on the other.  It’s the mosaic versus the melting pot, the transnational versus the particularist, the cosmopolitan versus the tribal, the inclusive versus the restrictive, the empathic versus the racist.  These tensions not only impact social and public policies and relationships within and between communities; they also affect conversations about representation and storytelling: which stories get told, how, and by whom.  This tells us a lot about a geographic area’s self-perception and how images and power are distributed in that area.

Like so many of us, I can’t help but feel troubled by the often violent and exclusionary outcomes of what I call “the new xenophobia”—a xenophobia that understands itself as playing defense against cultural differences, differences that demand recognition and respect.  This phenomenon assumes many forms.  White nativism is one, notions of normativity and “mainstream-ism” are another.  The extremism of movements like ISIS leave no doubt as to who does and does not belong.  Whether we’re speaking from a US context or from various global contexts, I believe theatre makers have an enormous role to play in shaping conversations about local and national identity.  After all, we model these identities through the stories we tell.  We dramatize the culture we wish to become.  We become the representation we produce on stage.  We perform the empathy that allows us to change.  Lest we forget, our stages inform our screens, and our screens matter a lot.  Unfortunately, even theatre makers are not immune from playing it safe; many may actually prefer to enforce sameness.  I am under no illusion that we all embrace pluralism—indeed, some perceive it as an existential threat.

I have long described my theatre company as a rumination on 21st century Americanness.  We can ruminate rather seriously, and find jest in our identity politics.  Silk Road Rising exists, in part, to help define what it means to be American, and to actively refute those who would envision an America that makes no room for us.  If identity is a cultural marker, then we’re here to make our mark.  As I see it, national identity takes its cues from cultural productions and symbols.  It follows the lead of cultural workers.  It mirrors aesthetics off the aesthetes.  In other words, as powerless as we believe ourselves to be, it is the artists who get to do the defining.  We’re the nation builders and the identity formers.  And it is up to us to decide how we wield that power.

 Jamil Khoury is the Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising.  A theatre producer, playwright, essayist, and filmmaker, Khoury’s work focuses on Middle Eastern themes and questions of Diaspora. He is particularly interested in the intersections of cultural identity, citizenship, and class.  Khoury holds a M.A. degree in Religious Studies from The University of Chicago Divinity School and a B.S. degree in International Relations from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He received the 2015 Community Leader Award from the Association for Asian American Studies, the 2013 Actors Equity Association Kathryn V. Lamkey Award for promoting diversity and inclusion in theatre, and the 2010 3Arts Artist Award for Playwriting.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline 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.