BY MONICA BAUER
In May of 2016, I watched with horror as Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for President. Back then, we all knew what he’d said about Muslims. Still to come would be the horrendous attack on the Khan family after Khizr Khan, father of American hero Captain Humayun Khan, spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Ever since I graduated from playwriting school at Boston University in 2004, I had been sharpening one tool for communicating to the world; theater. I knew I wanted to say something theatrically about Trump, particularly about his fanning the flames of Islamophobia.
Much of my passion to fight against Islamophobia comes from my personal history: I spent a year teaching at the American University in Cairo, in the 1990’s. I didn’t just come for a weekend seminar. I was there for a year, living in the suburb of Ma’adi, having serious conversations with my students, some taking up the hijab out of devotion, some proudly wearing their hair in the latest styles and wearing the tightest jeans they could buy. And I was teaching in a delicate area- Political Science. So I had good reason to lead some very sensitive discussions with my students about politics. I had one student, a serious looking young man, whose answer to everything was “Islam is the answer.” As often happens, they taught me more than I taught them.
When I came back to the U.S., I was changed forever. I was attuned to the problems of the Middle East. When 9-11 happened, and Bush turned to bomb Iraq after Afghanistan, I felt like I was a tiny voice screaming at the top of my lungs “Saddam Hussein is Sunni and secular and Osama bin Laden is Wahhabi and they hate each other!” And I knew right away there’d be a wave of Islamophobia washing over America. I was pleased when George W. Bush refused to use Islamophobia as a political weapon, but furious he was taking us into Iraq. By 2016, I had seen Trump use Islamophobia to gin up hatred against an entire world religion that he obviously knew nothing about. And I was pissed.
When you’ve lived in another culture, “they” are no longer “the other.” They are your friends and neighbors. They have names: Mohammed, Kareem, Fatima. Majidah. So when Trump turned his toxic spotlight on the Muslim community, I had to do something.
Luckily, one of my playwright pals is Aizzah Fatima, a Pakistani-American artist I first met at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I was over there producing a play of mine, “Made for Each Other,” and doing some blogging for the Huffington Post. They wanted short pieces from Americans doing their first Edinburgh Fringe, so I signed up, and decided to review Aizzah’s show, “Dirty Paki Lingerie.” Her one woman show blew me away-- I felt I suddenly knew six different Muslim-American women, each with an important story about being Muslim in America. The show was theatrical, well-written, funny, poignant, and Aizzah was perfect in all six roles. That’s how we became friends.
In May of 2016, when I wanted more than anything to hit Trump’s Islamophobia full force with theater, I knew exactly who to call.
I put up the money from my retirement savings, rationalizing that if I lost it all I’d just have to die a few months earlier. Aizzah put up her talent and connections with the Muslim, Arab, and Middle Eastern theater community in New York. I wanted to showcase her performances in “Dirty Paki Lingerie”, which I knew she had just toured to the UK and Pakistan. She’d already done several runs of the show in New York as a solo show artist, and she said we needed to do something more to get audience and press. At first we wanted to call it “A Theater Festival Against Trump,” but our landlords at Urban Stages Theater said that was too political. They’d help us promote our show, but only if their Board didn’t deem it “too political.” That’s when we came up with the title, “The Lady Liberty Theater Festival.” I wrote a short play as a curtain raiser called “Lady Liberty’s Worst Day Ever,” a two-hander between Lady Liberty and her agent Vinnie, who gives her the bad news that Trump wants to buy her and rebrand her as “Lady Trump.” I even managed to create a rap based on the Emma Lazarus poem on the statue’s base!
We had a 60 minute show (“Dirty Paki Lingerie”) and a short curtain raiser. If we didn’t add anything else, it would be a short lopsided night of theater, with no intermission. So I expanded a short play called “No Irish Need Apply,” which had just been done at the Kennedy Center’s “Tiny Plays for Ireland and America.” The play is about a Syrian refugee looking for a job, and an old Irish-American woman who may or may not be prejudiced. Now we had one play by a Pakistani-American, and two short plays by me. We needed more diversity.
Could we expand into a real festival with numerous plays by a wide variety of playwrights? It was just the two of us, Aizzah in New York and me currently based in Tucson, Arizona. We quickly realized we didn’t have the organization necessary to run anything approaching a real festival. But we could manage one day of staged readings! We made the connection that our rental at Urban Stages included September 11th, so we began to plan for a two-fold event: an evening of three plays against Islamophobia running nightly from September 7th through the 25th, and a day long festival of staged readings against Islamophobia, showcasing the work of a diverse group of writers, actors, and directors for the 15th anniversary of September 11th.
On September 11th we produced staged readings collaborating with a diverse group of actors, directors, and writers: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Zoroastrians from Iran, plus the usual theater percentage of agnostics and atheists. Participants included director Kareem Fahmy, from an Egyptian family that settled in Canada, and Ali Andre Ali, an actor whose background is half Palestinian and half Irish! The playwrights included Mona Mansour, Maximillian Singh Gill, Emma Goldman-Sherman, and me. Aizzah Fatima played two roles in the reading of my play “Anne Frank in the Gaza Strip.” We asked for donations for the International Rescue Committee for Syrian refugees.
On the last day of the run of the “three plays against Islamophobia”, Aizzah Fatima called me to come down from the audience to share our final bows together. She told the story of this crazy Christian woman who called her out of the blue months earlier to brainstorm ways to use theater to confront Islamophobia. At that moment, we both felt “mission accomplished.” We had met each other in common cause, to do our jobs to tell the truth in front of an audience. We had gone beyond just talking about creating theater to actually creating theater, putting up money and talent and time. Not everyone is able to do these things. Most of us are living day to day and can’t spend the time and effort to do this sort of work. It was a joy and a privilege for Aizzah and me to actually roll up our sleeves and get it done, during the most important election season in our life times, in the home town of Donald Trump.
Full length plays produced Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, regionally in Denver, Boston, Providence, Omaha, Detroit, Tucson, and internationally in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Brighton (England) Fringe Festival. Education includes a B.A. from Brown,
M. Div. from Yale, M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. Monica was the 2004 Teaching Fellow in the Graduate Playwriting Program at Boston University, where she received an MA in playwriting. Short plays produced in the Boston Theater Marathon, National 15 Minute Play Festival, and many others. Conferences include Sewanee, Great Plains Theater Conference (twice), Kennedy Center Summer Playwriting Intensive, and Kenyon Playwrights’ Conference. Outstanding Playwriting of a New Script, for “The Higher Education of Khalid Amir,” Midtown International Theater Festival, 2008. Her musical, “Lighter”, for which she wrote book, music, and lyrics, was presented at the New York Musical Theater Festival in 2009. Her full length play about race, “My Occasion of Sin,” was part of the 2014 season of the Detroit Repertory Theater. Her play for one actor, “Made for Each Other” has been in various production since 2009. In September of 2014, “Chosen Child” was given two staged readings in New York as part of the Indie Theater Now/Stage Left Studio Reading Series, directed by Austin Pendleton. “Chosen Child” was also part of the 2014-2015 season at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, where it was nominated for an IRNE (Independent Reviewers of New England) award for Best New Play. Heideman Finalist for multiple award-winner “Answering,” published by Heuer. Winner, Emerging Playwright Award, Urban Stages. Winner, Kennedy Center’s Tiny Plays for Ireland and America, 2016, for “No Irish Need Apply.” Plays published by Heuer, Brooklyn, and online at Indie Theater Now. Proud member, Dramatists Guild and League of Professional Theatre Women. Full production history at www.monicabauer.com.
BLOG SALON CURATOR
Ruth Margraff is a playwright and writing program chair at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Margraff's plays, poetry and opera works include Anger/Fly; Three Graces; Temptation of the Fresh Voluptuous; Cafe Antarsia Ensemble; Seven; Stadium Devildare; The Cry Pitch Carrolls; The Elektra Fugues; Night Vision; Deadly She-Wolf Assassin At Armageddon, Voice of the Dragon 1,2,3; Judges 19: Black Lung Exhaling; All Those Violent Sweaters; Red Frogs; Night Parachute Battalion; The State of Gristle; Centaur Battle of San Jacinto; Wallpaper Psalm. Her work has been performed at various festivals and venues throughout USA; UK; Canada; Russia; Romania; Serbia; Hungary; Ireland; Italy; Greece; Turkey; Slovenia; Czech Republic; Croatia; France; Austria, Sweden; Japan; Egypt; India, Azerbaijan. She is recipient of numerous awards from institutions including Rockefeller Foundation; McKnight Foundation; Jerome Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Theater Communications Group; Fulbright; New York State Council on the Arts; Illinois Arts Council; Arts International; Trust for Mutual Understanding of New York, CultureConnect.