Chicago actor and community organizer Arti Ishak was tapped to audition for Hatefuck in 2020. They found the script exciting, like nothing they’d ever read. But the production was ultimately canceled in the wake of the pandemic, leaving Ishak determined to get this play up on a Chicago stage one way or another. Now it’s their directorial debut, and the play’s Chicago premiere as it finds a home at First Floor Theater.
Ishak’s first step to production was cold emailing playwright Rehana Lew Mirza, inspired by the script’s unapologetic portrayal of messy Muslims as full people—full of desire and nuance. In an interview with Ishak, they share, “It doesn’t put us on a radical binary where we’re very, very devout or we’re foreigners that are in need of saving.”
5/5-6/10: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 5/22 and 6/5 8 PM (industry nights), Wed 5/31 8 PM (understudy performance), and Sat 6/10 3 PM; Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, firstfloortheater.com, previews (5/5-5/10) $0-$20, regular run 5/11-6/10 $0-$35 (limited free tickets available each performance)
Hatefuck follows the ideological differences (and burning desire) between novelist Imran and literature professor Layla. Imran folds anti-Muslim sentiments into his work as a potential subtextual critique, and Layla resists the notion it’s necessary to peddle such tropes even in a publish-or-perish world. Chemistry and intrigue are palpable from the beginning, as Lew Mirza’s writing gifts audiences with hot quips in her yearnworthy two-hander. Actors Aila Ayilam Peck (Layla) and Faiz Siddique (Imran) are inspired by a text that allows them the space to play characters who are so refreshing and complicated.
Siddique says, “Seeing the name of a Brown playwright, I was excited. But even subconsciously I was like, ‘Oh, I’m probably going to be an interpreter.’” To his surprise, what he found instead was an opportunity to explore what it means to be a main character in every sense. Imran’s thoughts on Muslim representation are as provocative as the play’s title, and yet there is an undeniable chemistry between him and Layla that allows for candid, vulnerable conversations on Muslimhood and representation.
Siddique was on a premed track in undergrad and didn’t seriously consider the arts as a career pathway, knowing roles like this were few and far between. He was also navigating the expectations of growing up in an immigrant household. He took acting classes on the side of his studies, until he realized this was the work he truly wanted to pursue. With Hatefuck, he calls the overall rehearsal process, “nothing short of a masterclass being opposite Aila and directed by Arti.”
Ayilam Peck notes, “We have a lot of stories in contemporary theater about being the child of immigrants, but so few about how those children actually engage with the world.” She grew up in Indonesia and Singapore before being, as she jokes, “imported” to the United States. Even after attending international schools, she found the transition to America a “cruel awakening” when considering the lore of the “melting pot.” For Ayilam Peck, her career has overwhelmingly included performing in classics. She says she loves doing these plays but it can be exhausting “inserting your own narrative into something that inherently doesn’t actually reflect your story.” This also leaves certain skill gaps in her resume. “I have never been cast as a sexy person. That means I have never done intimacy on stage and I’ve been in the industry over ten years now. My career has been playing the innocent, prudish types. People see ‘Brown girl’ and think nose-in-a-book type of person.”
As the title suggests, Hatefuck includes bountiful moments of intimacy that require a level of boundaries and trust. As director Ishak affirms, “Part of my directing philosophy is to have an actor-centered room.” For them, this means they’re “creating a container in which we tap in and out of the work mentally, physically, and emotionally in a way that prioritizes safety.” Samantha Kaufman serves as the fight and intimacy director, helping build a rehearsal culture where actors have agency over their bodies. Ishak continues, “I can’t deny that there is an inherent hierarchy in this room, and that being the director, you sit at the top of it, but I can acknowledge that consistently. I can try and create a space where other people feel like they can push back and ask questions.”
On a similar note of pushing the theater field to do better, Hatefuck offers an opportunity to build upon a growing canon of SWANASA stories that reject the stereotypes that plague our narratives. We’re in a moment of reclamation that includes intergenerational healing and an unapologetic embracing of queerness and sexuality. Historically, we see a generalization of culture, where the nuance of lived experience across Southwest Asia and North Africa are lost to orientalism or even brownface—as we still contend with a pattern of casting SWANASA actors beyond their own cultures.
Part of what makes playwright Lew Mirza’s work dramaturgically compelling is the ability for any SWANASA actor to bring their own cultural background into the script. Sometimes, when reading plays, she’s found the lack of specificity around terms like “person of color” or “Muslim” too open-ended, a “burden that could fall on actors to fully flesh out.” Lew Mirza aims to be as specific as possible in her scripts but “allows for those specific changes, if necessary.” Here she hopes it eliminates the need for the actor to “create the character and be sort of amorphous.”
Ishak says their directorial debut has been “absolutely a dream come true.” Although Ishak’s directorial prowess could be seen in Director’s Haven 6 and in the music video “Shukran Bas,” this is their first full-length theatrical production. They are grateful to the SWANASA community and allies for believing in them and this work. Through the cultural collective SWANASA Central, Ishak produced a reading of Hatefuck along with cultural organizers Rom Barkhordar and Tina El Gamal in May 2022 as a part of Steppenwolf’s multidisciplinary performance series, LookOut.
Accompanying Hatefuck’s Chicago premiere is a slew of programming featuring food pop-ups with Chef Thom Padanilam of Thommy’s Toddy Shop, opportunities to discuss the rehearsal process with the team, and conversations on the themes of the play. Hatefuck signals another expansion of the stories told by, for, and about SWANASA and Muslim people with Lew Mirza’s provocative question: “Can you hatefuck someone into a different person?”