In light of recent events like President Donald Trump’s attempted ban on seven Muslim-majority countries, over 1,000 University of Michigan students, faculty and locals from Ann Arbor and Detroit attended a University Musical Society event performed by Ping Chong + Company on Saturday night. The event, named "Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity," worked to explore stereotypes of Muslim identity.
Ping Chong + Company is a unique theatre ensemble based in New York, which works to address civic and social justice issues through the performing arts. Founded in 1975, Ping Chong has collaborated with various universities and organizations to push the boundaries of identity, equity and community, through oral history performances and large-scale cinematic productions. Chong was awarded the 2014 National Medal of Arts by then-President Barack Obama.
“I’m really just creating a space for people to speak,” Chong said. “Because the media is not creating a space for them to speak, the media is just perpetuating stereotypes.”
Saturday’s production is a part of a series, “Undesirable Elements,” a 25-year project of interview-based performances. The five speakers of the event shared diverse experiences of being Muslim in the United States, with a common thread of coming to age after 9/11 in New York City.
“I think the urgency of the xenophobia that is rampant in our president’s new administration makes it very important to have Muslim people speak for themselves across this country,” Chong said. “These are real Muslims, they’re not actors. These are people who actually lived their lives in that culture, in that faith.”
The 75-minute production has been performed more than 50 times nationally and internationally. Though the show was accompanied with music and choreographed for timing, hand gestures, etc., the script is based solely on interviews of the five speakers.
LSA sophomore Marilyn Schotland reflected on the performance after watching.
“These stories are so eloquent in the way they intermingle and intertwine, and the way they tell it on the stage,” she said. “I think about how I present my identity to other people and it’s a very interesting conversation to have.”
Sara Zatz, associate director of Ping Chong + Company, co-wrote Saturday’s performance. In a Q&A following the performance, she spoke about reaching larger audiences and using the show as a call for action.
“It’s really easy to think that we’re in a liberal bubble in Ann Arbor,” Zatz said. “It’s really easy to think you’re a liberal bubble in New York City … Right now, the call to action is to take the next step beyond being sympathetic and being an ally, and being someone who is standing up and fighting — whether that is making sure your campus is a sanctuary school … People need to go beyond being sympathetic and to being advocates and activists.”
One of the performers, Maha Syed, is a human rights and gender equity advocate. She spoke about working in social justice and protesting every day in New York City.
“I’m seeing Black Lives Matter turn up for the Muslim ban,” she said. “I’m seeing Muslims turn up for the ICE raid bans. It’s amazing and it’s the thing we’ve been in lacking for so long. To work in social justice, you have to believe in the goodness of people… People are starting to see the intersections of these systems of oppressions. If we all got together and did this together, we could change the way this works. So I really hope that is the shining light that comes out of so much pain.”
Syed said the performance gives a small sample of what the human experience looks like, particularly highlighting the diversity despite belonging to the same faith. She spoke about the performance an opportunity to reach out to Muslims, as well as non-Muslims.
“All of these things need to be examined inside and out,” Syed said. “There are issues within the Muslim community on racial diversity, on tolerance just like every other religious or small community. Everyone needs to hear from everyone else.”
LSA senior Josephine Tan also reflected after the performance.
“I really like the intersection of identities. When you first read it, you think, ‘Oh, they’re just Muslims.’ But when you hear the stories, you know they are African American and Muslim, a feminist and Muslim, all of these different identities, and it’s really interesting to hear the intersection of these identities.”
LSA senior Brittani Chew echoed Tan’s remarks on the boundaries of identity.
“You see how everyone’s experiences are so different and it’s based on all of these different identities you hold. It shows it’s not additive — your identity is so much more complex based on the intersections of it,” she said.
Jim Leija, UMS director of education and community engagement, spoke about wanting university and high-school students to start more conversation after the show. He reflected on his own education and said the performance allows for younger generations to have a dialogue on Islamophobia, identity and other issues.
Music, Theatre & Dance senior, Tsukumo Niwa echoed Leija’s sentiments. “Being an artist, myself, I see how difficult to put yourself out there,” she said. Niwa also discussed wanting to maintain dialogue of the five performers to spread word on campus.
“We don’t have to rely on these five folks to keep telling their stories and wear themselves down,” she said. “We can’t always have this space. We, as spectators in this performance, learning just a little more about their identities and their stories — it’s really important for us to keep the story going.”
One of the five speakers, Amir Khafagy, is a Muslim of Arab and Puerto-Rican heritage. In the Q&A, he discussed how much the increasing salience and meaning of the performance to him.
“It’s very important to tell your own story — the more you continue to allow other people to tell your story for you, to speak on behalf of you, or about you, you lose some sort of power,” Khafagy said. “I think doing this show, it gives the general public that Islam is not just this one thing — it’s diverse.”
He also talked about inaccurate media portrayal of Muslims in the United States. During the performance, he spoke about the difficulties of assimilation.
“There comes a point when you get sick and tired of a seeing a Muslim on an airplane, and people thinking he’s about to blow it up, (rather) than just go on a vacation,” Khafagy said. “Every time you turn on the news, we’re the bad guy, and that gets so tiring and you come to hate yourself. Growing up as a kid, as I talked about in the story, I hated myself.”
Chong agreed with Khafagy’s ideas of Muslim identity. “There are Muslims who wear chador, the headscarf, and there are Muslims who don’t. There are Muslims who are feminists, there are gay Muslims — it’s just like anybody else,” he said. “I want them to see the human faith of people who are Muslim and to see that it’s much more complex than a cardboard idea of what a Muslim is.”
Chong’s use of light, projection and sound — both musical and clapping — allows for a unique intersection of the artistic and political to intersect.
“I feel it’s important as an artist to facilitate some sanity into the discourse.” Chong said. “Sanity — meaning stability, meaning not creating lies about people.”