The Council on American-Islamic Relations estimates that between 300,000 and 500,000 Chicago residents (11 to 18 percent of the city’s total population) identify as Muslim. But what Muslim identity means is a question rich with storytelling possibilities.
The Muslim Writers Collective’s mission is “aimed at empowering Muslims to reclaim control over Muslim American narratives in media,” says Arti Ishak, a theater artist and board member for the local branch of MWC, which formed a few months after the first chapter began in New York City in January 2014. (There are now chapters in several U.S. cities, as well as Canada and the UK.) This weekend, the Chicago chapter offers two different nights of programming at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre under the rubric “Empathy.” On Saturday, Ishak’s one-act Terrorist Play premieres. Ishak wrote the piece as a response to the mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past March.
“In an effort to cope with the trauma, I found myself obsessively researching Brenton Tarrant to find some sort of reasoning in this terrorist’s manifesto,” says Ishak. “Instead I found an article where the husband of one of the victims, Farid Ahmad, said he harbored no hate but instead forgave the man who killed his wife as he was convinced forgiveness, love, and generosity was the only way for the world to move forward.”
Not all the pieces in this week’s festival, produced as part of Steppenwolf’s LookOut performance series, tackle such somber subject matter. Yasmin Ali, another board member for MWC in Chicago, notes “We have wonderful comedians who are actually producing pieces specifically for this event and also pursuing comedy as a profession. We’ve got professional singers, we’ve got people who have been on the fringe of the community and who are now seeing a space to come back within the community.”
There is a duality to the mission, notes Ali. “I would say the number one characteristic of the spirit behind the MWC is always to push boundaries.” She adds that “within the Muslim community, I feel like we really need to push quite a few boundaries that exist.”
Crossing boundaries has been present since the Chicago MWC’s first meeting, which took place in the back room of a north-side bar. Says Ali, “It was really interesting and weird because, as you know, most sects in Islam believe that you can’t drink.” But she also notes, “They made a space for us in the back to pray, which I thought was beautiful.”
Ishak notes that the MWC cultivates new voices through “an open-mike series and a workshop series, both of which are pay-what-you-can to maintain accessibility. Our open-mike series are usually open to public submission and themed to help push artists to create outside of their comfort zones and engage in a community conversation.” For Terrorist Play (directed by Azar Kazemi), Ishak cast two “brand-new actors” (Jehad Broderick and Ashar Qureshi) she found through an audition workshop conducted by MWC. “It was important to me to cultivate generational artists’ growth within the community,” says Ishak.
The idea of building public performances around themes emerged during a company retreat earlier in the year, says Ali. “What we were trying to do was come up with ways to address the concept of identity, but not do it in a way that actually says ‘talk about your identity.’ Forgiveness is a huge part of it. Empathy is a huge part of it.” The final show for the year, to be held on a date to be announced in November, will be “culminating in identity,” says Ali. “It’s a yearlong arc that we’ve developed.” MWC’s last showcase was at Victory Gardens in June, and was focused on “Forgiveness,” which Ali says “was a very provocative theme that brought out all different kinds of narratives. There were songs, there was comedy, there was spoken word, rap, and personal narrative, from all different backgrounds. All different age backgrounds too, which I loved.”
Along the way, MWC has cultivated new audiences as well as artists. “Initially it was entirely the Muslim audiences,” notes Ali. “As you know, we don’t really have that many stages that are happening in our community. As time has gone on, it has definitely become more diverse. Muslim voices are not supposed to be for Muslims only. A lot of our goal and mission is to transform the American Muslim narrative on a mass level, so that includes other Americans as well.” v