In Reel Bad Arabs, Dr. Jack Shaheen explored the portrayals of Arab and Muslim characters in film. After analyzing a thousand different films from 1896 to 2000, he found that 12 films had positive depictions of Arabs and Muslims, 52 neutral, and 936 negative. And representations of Arabs and Muslims haven’t gotten better in the past twenty years. There may be crumbs of decent representation since, but Dr. Shaheen’s work is still relevant.
Nestled in Dearborn, Michigan, a town with the largest concentrations of Arabs and Arab Americans outside of the Middle East, the Dearborn Youth Theater (DYT) program, is trying to change all of that. Run by director Rashid Beydoun, musical director Vanessa El-Zein, and assistant director Lisa Cronin work to encourage and include students of all backgrounds in their productions.
In January, I attended the Dearborn Youth Theater’s production of Frozen Jr. Sitting there, in the thousand-and-some-change seat auditorium, I was fixated as a cast of over 60 students performed the classic Disney story. Coming in, I didn’t expect to fall in love with the show as much as I did – like many older siblings and cousins, I fell victim to constant reruns of Let It Go for a good four years after the movie was released in 2012. My love for the show didn’t come from the music or the dancing but from the cast. For the first time in forever (get it!) Anna and Elsa were played by two incredible Muslim, Arab-American actresses.
It was then that the story took on a completely different meaning for me. I loved seeing such strong female characters played by Arab, Muslim women. It created a reality and possibilities that I had only dreamt of, and never believed existed. Dearborn High School junior Nadia Gellani, who played Elsa, and Fordson High School senior Jenna Kobeissi, played their respective characters as funny, angry, ditzy, free-spirited, temperamental, reserved, silly, hurt, excitable, optimistic, awkward, calm, regal, and most importantly — normal. It’s rare for Arab, Muslim American women, and especially Arab, Muslim American women who wear the hijab, to be portrayed like this.
Even now I find it kind of silly with how much I resonated with this show. Like, it’s Frozen, of all things. But as someone who has loved the theatre – pretty much for as long as I can remember – it was jarring to actually see two Muslim teenage girls perform on such an enormous stage. Throughout High School, I watched as the other (and conveniently non-majority PoC) high schools in the district performed Into the Woods and Little Shop of Horrors and be afforded with opportunities to attend state-wide theater conferences, while my group of friends performed Shakespeare in the French classroom because it was the cheapest, and therefore only, thing we could do (which, by the way, no hate at all to Shakespeare, I was the one pushing us to do all his plays in the first place). I was never able to “see” myself on stage — which is probably why seeing this show meant so much to me.
“The best part,” Gellani told me after the show, “is when the kids come up to you and they’re like ‘Hi Anna’, ‘Hi Elsa’ that’s really special ” Speaking to the Gellani and Kobeissi, they really asserted how comfortable they felt working on this production, and it was unlike any other productions that they’d ever worked on — even in Dearborn. Kobeissi asserted that working with Rashid was “the first time that I’ve ever felt included, where things like where my parents came from or my religion didn’t matter.”
Yet Anna and Elsa weren’t the only stars of the show. Hans was played in the Glacial cast by Edsel Ford Senior Jameel Baksh and in the Arctic Cast by Edsel Ford Sophomore Amen Salha. And both actors have been with Rashid since his very first shows at Stout Middle School – Jameel with Schoolhouse Rock, and Amen with Hairspray. When asking both of them about what it was like working on a show with Baydoun, Amen had this to say: “You feel pushed. Rashid pushes us to our limit, and he knows that we can give even more than we think can.”
Jameel similarly had this to say: “We learn so much about acting, I think it shows — I’ve never taken a dancing class, I’ve never taken a singing class, I’ve never taken an acting class, all of my experience comes from Baydoun and after 4-5 years of doing it I can tap into these wells of experience.”
It’s not an only representation that’s important though – it’s the space where representation is created. And director Rashid Baydoun has dedicated his life to creating brave, generative, and most importantly – inclusive spaces that allow for folks from all backgrounds to participate. A show is composed of so many people working behind scenes, and it’s their support — the costume designers that designed the modest yet faithful transformation dress for Elsa’s Let It Go number, the “drama mamas” that helped along the way, the backstage crew, composed of Arab and Muslim students – that make the show. Director Rashid Baydoun had this to say: “Casting should be inclusive of all people. Period. Don’t tell me you can’t do something. ‘I can’t’ is not in my vocabulary.” Is what Director Rashid Baydoun had to say when I asked him about.”
It’s easy to be consumed by all the negativity that surrounds our lives. It’s even easier for the nicer things about the world around us — the people striving to make real change, the innovators and artists constantly at work, the communities that band together – to fall through the cracks, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. The Dearborn Youth Theater company, as small or inconsequential it may be in the grand scheme of the universe, is a perfect example.