I am moving to New York City from Oman to start an acting career. I am a devout Muslim, and I was wondering what forums and opportunities there are for Muslims in the New York theater. Are there Muslim-themed theaters, or theaters looking for Muslim actors to do Muslim plays? Are there theaters that require daily Muslim prayer? I would really appreciate your insight, as I hope my transition to the New York theater scene will be an easy one.
—Muhammad bin Busy, Oman
Dear Muhammad Bin Busy:
America's reputation as a melting pot—a place where a vast variety of cultures intermingle—holds true as ever. And nowhere is it truer than here in New York City, where so many of our ancestors first landed. Here they encountered (among other things) the new challenge of maintaining their native identities, customs, and faiths in this very different, multicultural landscape. Some who'd spent their entire lives dwelling only among their own people suddenly found themselves adjusting to having an Italian landlord, an Irish schoolteacher, a Jewish grocer, Greek neighbors, and so on. Today that balancing act continues, and I think most would say it works reasonably well here. New York offers exclusive group-specific opportunities, surrounded by a society that, by the very way it functions, compels us to "melt" together. (Especially in the summer.)
All of that is to say, though you will find fellow Muslim actors and some Muslim-themed plays, my research on your question indicates that Muslim-only theater companies are rare.
Born in Kuwait and raised by a Muslim father and a Christian mother, actor and playwright Sevan Greene has been living and working in New York City for four years. "While I am not aware of any theater or theater group that is solely focused on Muslim actors," Greene says, "there is a healthy Middle Eastern theater community in which some of the actors are Muslim. The focus is on our shared cultural heritage instead of a religious one, as we have different faiths within the community. There is a solid community base to become a part of as you wend your way through the industry."
If finding a professional, strictly Muslim theater company whose regimen includes the required daily prayer is important to you, you may need to rethink your move. It's "really hard, because if you're really a devout Muslim, then you wouldn't do any theater work unless it's connected to a mosque," says New York actor-comedian Rasha Zamamiri. "There are many opportunities for this overseas, in the Middle East, but unfortunately, I don't know of any in New York. I would maybe try to get in touch with Arabic mosques in Astoria [in Queens] or Bay Ridge [in Brooklyn] and see if they do that. It's not going to be anything big, though, like it is in the Middle East. It's probably going to be in the same realm as your local church doing the story of Jesus' birth during Christmas."
On the other hand, if you can accept this apparent separation of church and stage, it seems you'll find a welcoming community of professional theater folk whose roots are in your part of the world. I was fortunate enough to connect with Arian Moayed, the Iranian-born actor who received a Tony Award nomination for best featured actor in a play in 2011 for his performance in "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" and just finished playing Edgar in "King Lear" at the Public Theater. Moayed offers some good places to start connecting:
"There are definitely some Middle Eastern companies in New York City, and definitely some Middle Eastern actors/creators/directors that are here as well. The most prominent two organizations in New York City are Noor Theatre and the Arab-American Comedy Festival—wonderful creators, actors, comics, and writers who create work supporting and developing the stories of the Middle East. The goals are not necessarily political but mostly about expanding the stories of the Middle East—stories ranging from immigration to Islam, comedy to drama…. And the influence has gone from Off-Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway and recently Broadway." He adds, "Manhattan Theatre Club, the Public Theater, and many other theaters offer many opportunities for Middle Eastern stories." Still, Moayed agrees, "As far as the religious aspect of the question, I haven't heard or know of a specifically Muslim theater company and/or an organization with prayer services."
Noor Theatre was founded by three New York theater makers: Lameece Issaq, Maha Chehlaoui, and Nancy Vitale. I shared your letter with them via the company's website and got this lovely response:
Thanks very much for your email. Happy to give you an answer:
Noor Theatre is dedicated to supporting, presenting, and developing the work of artists of Middle Eastern descent. We aim to create work that transcends cultural boundaries and speaks to all people. We are presently a company-in-residence at New York Theatre Workshop, where we will be co-producing a play called "Food and Fadwa" in May of 2012.
We are always thrilled to meet new artists and would be very happy to meet this actor from Oman. While ours is not an organization that is specific to any religion, we deeply respect the diversity within the Middle Eastern community and are proud to support a growing pool of talented artists from different faiths and cultural backgrounds.
Please do have him check out our website—www.noortheatre.org—and sign up for our monthly newsletter to learn more about our work and upcoming events.
Many thanks and warm regards,
Lameece Issaq, co-founder and artistic director, Noor Theatre
See that? You already have a contact (via this Russian-Italian columnist). Not that anything is easy here; assuredly, it takes time to get a career up and running. Moayed took a proactive approach. "When I moved to New York City," he says, "I immediately started my own company, Waterwell (www.waterwell.org), to tell new stories, ideas, and forms for the American theater." He encourages you to follow his example: "The New York theater scene has many opportunities to make brown theater. But my advice to you…is to create your own work and opportunities.
There is nothing more valuable than creating work that means something to you and that you have created. The creation and devising process is tougher, but ultimately more rewarding." And when you come across fellow Middle Eastern actors, says Moayed, introduce yourself: "Meet us after shows and talk to us. We're a very open and accepting group who are always interested in expanding our missions and values." Here in the melting pot, you may find the same holds true for actors of other descents. Asalaam Alaikum!
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