Last fall, PlayMakers Repertory Company produced its first-ever play about Muslim Americans. To think that my reality would dance upon the stage felt as special as receiving a rose on “The Bachelor.”
Then the dream choked.
“Disgraced” features two Muslims. One beats his wife up; the other sympathizes with terrorists. They start off rational, then implode (so if you know a Muslim, just wait). The sole character who defends Islam — a non-Muslim — gets beaten up by her Muslim husband (so if you trust a Muslim, just wait).
There were comments akin to “all Muslims felt pride on 9/11” and “Muslims hate Jews.”
These elements exist among some American Muslims; but we are also the UNC Muslim group who organizes a blood drive every September to honor 9/11 victims. We are the UNC Muslim professor awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry in fall 2015. Watching “Disgraced,” I felt like all of that was erased; that, as a Muslim who doesn’t want to blow things up, I wasn’t even allowed to exist. Such was the relentless force of every stereotype mashed into one play. If I felt worthless, then how did Americans, who have never met a Muslim and praised Donald Trump all day, feel?
Mind you, I’m not advocating that plays must portray all Muslims prancing in golden light with halos. We should write about inexcusable Muslim silence over genocide in Darfur. At least that’s true. The play’s author, Ayad Akhtar, wrote in an email he thinks “Disgraced” also embodies truth. But creating a world where ALL Muslims deal with society by becoming hate-filled is creating a lie.
Some Muslim students talked to PlayMakers leaders. During our first meeting, they tried convincing us “Disgraced” was just a caricature. Which part? The part where we left the play feeling worthless? Or the dirty looks retired Chapel Hillians shot us, to say “why are you stupidly embracing so primitive a religion?” (Islamophobes, rejoice!)
I once overheard three spectators at PlayMakers argue that accepting $1 billion in exchange for someone’s life is okay. “Think about it! A random person you don’t know, one not in the U.S.!” You think they could watch “Disgraced” and conclude, “caricature”?
In our second meeting, PlayMakers leaders waxed rhapsodically about “great conversations” the play stimulated. Indeed, the play with only violent Muslims fits nicely with talk about how Muslims should be banned, Muslims hate America, Muslims are dangerous, let’s monitor them. Live that siege for a day, then tell me how the only Muslim American play you’ve ever produced, with only violent Muslims, stimulated great conversations.
PlayMakers thinks “Disgraced” “grapples with questions” following the Chapel Hill shootings. I don’t get it: what do hateful Muslims in “Disgraced” have to do with three young Muslims, volunteering with refugees and the homeless, murdered three miles from campus?
They argued “Disgraced” doesn’t stereotype, then lumped bright, kind helpers up with the hateful — united by the label, “Muslim.”