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Theater Project Aims to Break Stereotypes of Muslim Culture


What do the voices of women playwrights in Muslim cultures sound like, and what do they say? These questions portrayed in the project "Unexpected Journeys," a festival of plays and readings featuring a diverse cast of characters.

The Immigrants' Theatre Project aims to break stereotypes and challenge hatred, intolerance, and ignorance.

"'Unexpected Journeys' isn't at all what you would expect, and that's a good thing. Hosted by the historic Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the festival of plays and readings encompasses a diverse range of topics, situations, and people. While people in the Muslim world are often thought of as "all the same," this festival proves differently.

Marcy Arlin is Artistic Director of the Immigrants' Theatre Project. She says the festival is about tolerance, and comes at a time when Americans need to remain open to diverse thought. "In light of September 11, it was about the fact that people were very afraid, and when people are afraid, they grasp at what they think is safe thinking, safe thoughts whatever they may be and the whole purpose of my organization is for people not to stereotype, to look at things in a broader, more interesting, individual way," she said.

The plays in the festival certainly have the audience looking at different ways of thinking, living, and even dressing. The writers themselves represent the world over from Armenia, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Turkey, the United States and England.

Cracking Mud is Pinching Me tells the story of three generations of women in Jordan on a visit to a Dead Sea spa. They discuss the head scarf, which the grandmother and granddaughter wear, but the mother does not. Each has a different take on the meaning of covering up.

Mother: "So whose revolution is it?" Grandmother: "Not mine. I'll have nothing to do with a revolution that's skin deep." Mother: "Skin deep… good one Mother." Daughter: "It's not a revolution. I'm not the opposite of commercial nudity. It's something…" Grandmother: "It's a 'revelation' then. A spiritual hideout. It's not what the eyes can see, but what can't be seen, right?" Mother: "Oh, you're a visionary Mother." Grandmother: "I see what I see."

The Jordanian-Palestinian playwright, Haya Husseini, who lives in Australia, says she herself needed to understand why younger generations of Arabs were becoming more traditional than their parents. Ms. Arlin says the playwright told her something she, and probably most Americans, didn't know.

"The playwright said that for each generation the scarf has a different meaning. For the grandmother, it's like your shoes. For the daughter, it's like liberation from oppression. For the granddaughter, it's an affirmation of faith and political belief," she said.

But despite their differences, the women come to accept and love each other for their individuality. They realize that each one has a separate voice and each one can use it differently.

The voices in these plays and readings are strong, creative, and varied. But one thing they are not is well-known. Lucinda Kidder is trying to change that. She is currently putting together a collection of plays written by women from Muslim cultures.

"I wanted American theatres to have access to this type of material. We now have anthologies of plays by women of Hispanic origin, Asian-American origin many, many of these populations are being represented now in the American theatre, but this particular voice has not been heard at all," Ms. Kidder said.

Until the voices reach a broader scale, they can be heard through The New Immigrant Theatre Festival at the Tenement Museum. The festival definitely takes us on a road less traveled, but experiencing the diversity of voices, religions, politics, and style in these plays, can make all the difference.