Jamil Khoury: Representation in the Local Theatre

Jamil KhouryDylan Fahoome (Playwriting, ’16) and Morgan Greene (Theatre Arts, ’15) discuss the present condition of representation in theatre locally, both in Chicago and at The Theatre School with playwright and scholar, Jamil Khoury.

Dylan Fahoome: How do you view the current state of representation in Chicago?

Jamil Khoury: Chicago has certainly improved on this front, and I think there has been a concerted ongoing conversation about our responsibility as art-makers around questions of representation…which is not to say by any stretch of the imagination that it’s a perfect or ideal or even an acceptable situation right now. But certainly there is a heightened consciousness around representation, around authorial voice, around depicting cultural experiences and practices that are not necessarily one’s own. We all have the right to tell whatever story we wish to, but we need to do so in a responsible and empathic manner. That often requires talking and listening and hearing people that we’re looking to somehow represent. The word “authentic” is a really loaded word. What does that mean?  Perhaps at the end of the day, we are all authentically ourselves as individuals. But there is something to be said for what a member of a community can bring to the table. This history that we have of exoticizing, otherizing, or sexualizing— or whatever the case may be, we have to consciously and actively challenge [it] because we don’t want to become tools to racist narratives or to narratives that somehow demean or diminish people.

Morgan Greene: I remember when your piece on Mary Zimmerman came out. I recalled you writing that you had bit your tongue for so many years regarding your feelings about her body of work. Why are we afraid to speak out against things that we feel are inherently wrong and insensitive? 

JK: There’s a huge intimidation in terms of speaking truth to power. Artists in this country are very disempowered, and that’s a problem. With Mary Zimmerman, I was responding to an interview she gave to Chicago Magazine, and it opened the floodgates for me. I was so shocked and appalled by the interview that I couldn’t not address it. I had bit my tongue for years, like I said, and I was like, “Ok. I’m just not gonna go there.” She’s the darling of the regional theatre movement…and when you’re running a small arts organization, you have to be somewhat cognizant about whose toes you’re going to step on. I wrote the piece, we disseminated it. I had no idea that it would have the sort of reach and impact that it had. I am constantly in situations where someone will reference the piece, so whatever the theatre world equivalent of going viral is, it had that kind of [effect].

The Goodman Theatre reached out and then we asked Mary if she would be willing to respond to questions— which she did, to her credit. I don’t know what change there’s been in terms of how she approaches her work. I’m still very critical, but I appreciate that we actually had two conversations in person. She feels she has license to exoticize Eastern cultures and it’s all about what’s pretty and what’s funny and what’s kind of sexy. Zimmerman is a powerful brand and obviously people eat this stuff up. I’ve never really come across a character of hers, or a caricature of hers, that is someone I could have lunch with— because they’re not real people! And she might say, “they’re beautiful, and they’re sensual, and they dance and they move… they’re not terrorists! They’re not killing [or] hurting anyone.” My rule is: Can I have lunch with this character?

MG: A major question that has been present in the process for In the Heights has been how to honor the performance context of a show with authentic voices and experiences – when it’s happening in a university setting with a limited casting pool where diversity is already less than ideal.  What do you think are some of the responsibilities involved with that? And some of the complications?

JK: I think that dramaturgy plays a really big role— doing one’s homework. Reading first-person narratives written by individuals within communities can go a long way. Also, just understanding socioeconomic realities within an immigrant community in NYC— let’s say the Dominican community –that goes a long way. Ideally as theatre-makers, we aspire to be in the empathy business. Actors are really a great example of that— embodying another voice, another experience, another person. So I think that there’s preparation there, and there’s bringing in people from the community to give thoughts and reactions: to check ourselves. We like to call ourselves poly-cultural – cultures fuse and collide and merge. We’re a work in progress in terms of cultural identity. Silk Road was born of a multicultural impulse – which was about defining voice and carving out space for voices. One of my criticisms is that it creates narrative silos when the reality is that we live in so many worlds simultaneously. There’s fluidity to cultural experience and identity.

We’ve had this situation often times in conversation with institutions that we’re looking to partner with on a project. I might bring a script written by a Filipino-American playwright and someone will say, “What does the Filipino community think of this play?” And I think A) I don’t know, I can’t speak for all Filipinos – and B) the point is that it’s written by someone within the community who is challenging her own community.

DF: Are you hopeful about diversifying Chicago theatre in terms of representation?

JK: In the long term, I’m very optimistic when you look at programming choices that theatres are making, and building theatres that look like the city we live in. I think that the consciousness has shifted, but there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of audience. The audience for theatre in Chicago is overwhelmingly white. And God bless everyone who goes to theatre. I love the Caucasian senior citizens who are always there – because that keeps us all alive. It’s a solid base. We’re fortunate that that audience exists and loves theatre the way it does. But we have a lot of work to do to create future generations of active theatregoers and a lot of that has to do with seeing one’s story on stage and seeing oneself represented.

I think back to the very limited representation of Arab-Americans and the Arab world – my father is from Syria – and the very bad representation [of Arab-Americans] and how that has impacted me, and a desire to want to counter that and change it. I also think of LGBT representation in the arts – and how that has changed. We no longer have to be murdered or kill each other at the end of the story. For decades, that was the case. A gay person died and took his or her own life [in a play]. I’m 48 years old, and I came out when I was 17, so we’re talking 31 years ago. The remarkable change that has occurred in this culture in the country [since] 1983 when I came out is mind blowing, and so much of that is cultural activism – plays and novels and TV Shows and movies – that have really changed millions of Americans in terms of how they view us. I believe so strongly that policies and laws follow the culture, [but] rarely do they lead the culture. We have the responsibility to create the country we want to live in, and create the world we want to inhabit and future generations want to live in.

I think Chicago theatre is moving in that direction, and I think we need to help expand audiences. I’m not one of those people that’s going to lament and say, “Oh, it’s time to move to Florida and retire.” But we need younger people. We need people of color. We need diverse communities. It’s not healthy for an art form to be disproportionately reliant on any one segment of the community because it’s such a special art form and such a powerful art form.  People are forever trying to write the obituary on live theater. I am convinced that live theater cannot die because there will always be a need for this kind of experience.

Jamil Khoury is Founding Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising. Promoting playwrights of Silk Road backgrounds is a passion that dovetails well with Khoury’s experiences living in the Middle East and his eleven years as a cross-cultural trainer and international relocations consultant. His vocation as a playwright lends valuable currency to fulfilling SRR’s mission as a playwright driven theatre. Khoury’s plays focus on Middle Eastern themes and questions of Diaspora. He is particularly interested in the intersections of culture, national identity, sexuality, and class. Khoury holds a M.A. degree in Religious Studies from The University of Chicago Divinity School and a B.S. degree in International Relations from Georgetown University ‘s School of Foreign Service. He is a Kellogg Executive Scholar (Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University) and has been awarded a Certificate of Professional Achievement in Nonprofit Management. Khoury has developed courses in Middle East Studies for The University of Chicago Graham School of General Studies and has lectured widely on Arab American affairs. In fall of 2009, Khoury conceived of and curated the highly successful Silk Road Cabaret: Broadway Sings the Silk Road. Khoury also conceived of, and was a featured playwright in, SRR’s production of The DNA Trail: A Genealogy of Short Plays about Ancestry, Identity, and Utter Confusion (winter 2010). His DNA Trail short play,WASP: White Arab Slovak Pole, has been produced as a video play and will be released in early 2011. Khoury’s play Precious Stones won Gay Chicago Magazine’s 2003 After Dark Award for Outstanding New Work and has been performed in ten cities across the U.S. His play Fitna was performed at University Theatre of The University of Chicago and his play Azizati was performed at Café Voltaire. Khoury is the 2010 recipient of the 3Arts Artist Award for Playwriting.
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