Five young people sit in a row onstage in front of music stands. Although one wears a hijab, they are otherwise outwardly unremarkable, indistinguishable in appearance from other American teenagers. But this group has come together to perform a theater piece called Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity, and for the next 90 minutes they will speak, clap, and even pray, alone and in unison, weaving together their five disparate stories of growing up Muslim in the United States in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, Ferdous Dehqan, Kadin Herring, Amir Khafagy, and Maha Syed are not professional actors, but they had the good fortune to become part of the theatrical practice of Ping Chong, a Chinese-American artist based in New York City who has dedicated much of his time over the past 25 years to developing a unique program called “Undesirable Elements” of which this program, Beyond Sacred, is one version. Chong, along with his writing partners Sara Zatz and Ryan Conarro, enters into a community and conducts a series of comprehensive interviews designed to elicit stories that speak to the specific circumstances of some particular group of lives. The first “Undesirable Elements” performance was created to document the experience of bilingual Americans, and since then, the program has produced dozens of such pieces all over the country. This latest production was chosen to tour because, as Chong told me by phone from his New York office, there was “real interest for very current reasons — as a result, Beyond Sacred has been in demand.” Chong tries to book the show’s touring performances on weekend nights so that the travel can be accomplished with the least possible disruption of the performers’ lives. There’s little rehearsal necessary because these actors have been doing the show on and off for the better part of a year and because these are their own stories — true tales of their real lives reshaped into a continuous narrative of personal testimony.
While it goes without saying that this material, which describes in detail the social challenges faced by young Muslims — at school, at work, and anywhere else — that they negotiate the bewildering and often frightening face that America presents to people of their faith today, it goes better with saying: There won’t be a more important show presented in Santa Barbara this year. Everyone needs to hear these voices, especially now, and the blessing that this booking by UCSB Arts & Lectures represents for our community at this critical moment can hardly be overstated. I have now watched the video of Beyond Sacred multiple times, and it is nothing less than a prayer for understanding, a beautiful, funny, and intensely poignant cry for tolerance at a time when such sentiments are more necessary than ever before. Using a timeline framework to keep things cohesive, these five voices will transport the audience from ignorance to knowledge, from estrangement to connection, and from wariness and fear to acceptance and love.
“It’s a privilege to enter into other people’s lives in this way,” said Chong. “Our goal is to give the actors in our shows a platform from which to speak their truth.” Hearing Abdelghani describe the journey that took her from being a pink-haired, pot-smoking Goth in high school to wearing the hijab today has nothing to do with what anyone might expect about a Muslim conversion experience. There was no coercion, no pressure from family, and no sense of cultural obligation; rather she sought to develop a relationship with God through a desire to give a deeper meaning to her life.
The rest of the cast covers a wide range of attitudes toward Islamic faith today, but what binds them together is what will, I am sure, spread outward from their performance to those who witness it — a determination to be more fully present in this life, and to respect and value the contributions of all others to the future that we must make together or not at all.
Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity takes place Saturday, November 19, 8 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.