With current tensions surrounding the Muslim community at the University, Ping Chong + Company could not come to Ann Arbor at a better time.
This Saturday, UMS welcomes the unique theatre group that incorporates diverse and modern-day cultural issues in their art. Their performance, titled “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” provides an original theatrical performance about the reality of being Muslim.
The show “is an interview-based theater project, focusing on the true lives and experiences of young Muslim Americans,” said the associate director and co-author Sara Zatz in an email interview. “The performers are telling their own personal stories on stage, they are not actors.”
Zatz said that she, Ping Chong and Ryan Conarro wrote the script to be designed as an interview/story-telling narrative, which is a far stretch from typical, structured theatrical scripts. Members of the cast will tell their own stories of being Muslim and connect modern and historical events that have happened in their community.
The company has also put on other social and cultural related performances, working with “themes such as the disability experience, experiences of survivors of sexual violence, and peace and reconciliation work within the Congolese refugee community of Syracuse, NY,” Zatz added. These shows, including “Beyond Sacred,” all create a series called “Undesirable Elements,” which has put on over 50 documentary-like performances since the early ‘90s.
When asked what the show “Beyond Sacred” means, especially in a time like this where Muslims are a targeted group for discrimination with President Trump’s Muslim Ban, Zatz explained: “Audiences around the country have been deeply grateful to have the opportunities to hear the first-hand stories of the cast members. This is true for both Muslim audience members who feel they are seeing themselves represented, but also non-Muslim audience members who are finding paths of connection to the experiences shared.
Additionally, cast member and SUNY Binghamton student, Ferdous Dehqan, said that in order “to create a better understanding between Muslim and non Muslim communities it was necessary to do this show through the lenses of arts because the impact of arts is so powerful.”
The performance will still feel somewhat like a theatre performance, due to the Power Center serving as the venue and the show’s use of lighting and design to create an atmosphere that is appealing and embodies the theme.
Because the show covers historical and current day events, Zatz claimed that they are continuously updating the script’s ending because it catches up to present day. With that, it is evident that the company understands how relevant Muslim identity issues are, and that those problems have, unfortunately, not seemed to dissipate over the past few years.
Overall, “humanization” was the word that stuck out in the interview.
“I think first of all ‘Beyond Sacred’ humanizes Muslims and the Muslim identity. This is a play created against the dehumanization of Muslim identity,” Dehqan said. “Second, the show inspires people to re-think about Muslim identity by challenging their ideas and teaching them new ways of looking at this phenomena … After sharing our personal stories and experiences in regards to Muslim identity we are hopeful to see changes in people's perception and understanding of us, their attitudes toward the Muslim community and realizing of the fact that no matter who we are, what we believe in, and how we look like we are all Americans and we all love this country.”