How to Support Arab-American Theater in the Heart of the Midwest

A Minnesota-based Arab and Muslim theater collective is raising funds for the coming year:

The Midwestern theater collective “New Arab American Theater Works” is raising money for GiveMN’s “Give to the Max” day, November 17, to support three new plays by Arab and Muslim playwrights: Ahmed Ismail Yusuf, William Nour, and Kathryn Haddad.

Haddad is a playwright, teacher, and long-time organizer who helped found the Arab-American artis and literary organization Mizna, where she served as Artistic and Executive Director for twelve years. Haddad answered questions about where “New Arab American Theater Works” has been, and where it’s going.

Your website says “since 1995.” What happened in 1995, what’s changed, and what’s new with “New Arab American Theater Works” in 2016?

Kathryn Haddad: In 1995, I led a loose collective of community members to put together a community showcase of my play, Gaza Stories. It was really the precursor to my Arab American arts activity in the Twin Cities.  It was an exhilirating experience for me to finally tell an Arab American story on stage – something I had never seen and to work with a group to do so. I found the lead actor at the local Arab deli Holyland frying falafel.  I did not know many Arab Americans in town at that time, so I literally went in there and asked the guys working if anyone wanted to be in a play.  One of them did.  🙂  This grassroots community approach to arts and especially theater paved the way for all the work I have done since then in theater and community arts.

Since then, we have had a growth in the local Arab American arts scene including a strong community of supporters and audience much of what I developed as the director of Mizna. A lot has changed in 20 years, but a lot still remains the same. We are still open to a falafel fryer with no acting experience to perform in a play and actually seek such connections constantly.

What sort of projects will you be involved in come 2017? The staged readings, of course — but, if the fundraiser exceeded all expectations, what other things would the collective like to do?

If the fundraiser is wildly successful, it would be fantastic to give these three plays full productions, and to also do a call for scripts to produce plays from other Arab American artists on a yearly basis.

It has always been my dream to tour a play across the U.S. and internationally.  I would love to do that as well – to bring the Arab American stories to communities that don’t have the good fortune we do of an Arab American art scene.

Does your background in education make for possible overlap between Arab-American Theatre Works and the school systems in the Twin Cities?

Image of Zafira, courtesy Arab American Theater Works.

I try my best to separate my school life and my arts life for self preservation sake, if nothing else. I feel very vulnerable as a teacher. Many of my fears around that came out in my play ZAFIRA.  She was a teacher who ended up in the “Arab and Muslim Internment Camps.” She was sent up the river by her students and school because of her political views and activism. That is my greatest fear, and I try very hard to separate those two lives for that reason. I have a bit of a history of something like that happening in my last job.  Some students complained that I was teaching about Islam, Palestine, etc… and I ended up losing my job when they did budget cuts. I don’t think it was a coincidence that I was cut after that incident.  I was advised by the assistant principal at the time not to mention or talk about my background. Some parents accused me of trying to convert their kids to Islam.  I tried to explain to everyone that I am not even Muslim.  I don’t think they believed me.  And that was when Bill Clinton was president!  Imagine what would happen now?

What barriers do you see to getting Arab-American theatre staged in Minnesota and elsewhere around the country?

So many barriers!  Theaters want to appeal to audiences, and most theaters believe that Arab American stories are not popular with audiences and funders especially.  There are so many misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims. There are some Arab and Muslim stories that get told in mainstream theaters, but they are usually the “Disgraced” type stories where the seemingly good Arab or Muslim guy ends up beating his wife and secretly loving the fact that they knocked down the Twin Towers.  Those are not the kind of stories that I would ever present, and therefore, my plays and the plays of New Arab American Theater Works are most likely not going to be picked up by most theaters.

Does the current political climate change anything about your plans?

No. Not at all. I hope it makes them more relevant than ever.

Even though it’s called “Arab American Theater Works,” it also supports the work of non-Arab Muslim theater artists, such as by the Somali community?

Yes, I cannot see doing this work in the Twin Cities and not addressing and including the Somali community. When we are talking about Islamophobia, they are on the front lines here and suffer a lot.  The Somali community is also such a large and vibrant community that there are so many stories to tell and people to participate creatively.  I am very aware, however, that I am not Somali and that this community (while overlapping in many ways with the Arab community) has its own leadership and stories to tell.

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