COMING TOGETHER: The MENASA Forum Response
On February 16th, 2020, a number of film and theatre artists of MENASA (Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian) descent working in the Chicago community came together with the intention of collectively identifying issues facing our communities, and working towards transformational and actionable solutions. With over 50 community members in attendance, representing a diverse range of careers, specialties, and perspectives, the evening began with breaking bread and a large group discussion, moderated by Haven Chicago’s Artistic Director Ian Damont Martin. Using the principles from The Circle Way by Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin to shape a non-hierarchical community conversation, the group conjointly drew up a Brave Space Agreement to set collective boundaries and intentions for the evening. Collective agreements and intentions serve not only to ensure safety of participants, but to allow for civil disagreement and foster challenging discussions with the goal that all members enter on as equal footing as possible.
The first topic of conversation for our circle was to pinpoint actionable steps to combat the MENASA communities’ tendency to be classified as a monolith generally and by those with hiring and casting power. The conversation focused on personal agency and the empowerment of simply asking questions to the people in power. While honoring the ground gained by previous generations, this group understood one of the main reasons the MENASA communities are seen as a monolith is that most of the preexisting work that includes MENASA folx is made either by the white majority or with the white gaze in mind. A collective decision to always ask for better and to create our own content became the action items which bubbled to the surface.
We also identified that those two action items were impossible without first creating a meaningful community: a connection that exists outside the parameters of simply having a similar ancestral background. For example, it’s one thing to identify that an artistic position or role should go to a person of color or member of one of our communities; it’s another situation entirely to be able to send back a list of names of folx whose work best serves the project. We identified the need for a collective or organization that would keep our communities’ needs as the central focus and convening as such was the first step in laying that groundwork. Our communities are hungry for connection that moves whiteness away from the center; connection that allows for our complexities and diversity of thought to be our greatest strengths, not used against us as a tactic to force us to fall in line. The group broke out into smaller circles based on artistic specialty (Actors, Directors/Producers/Designers, Writers) to better source what actions and next steps could be accomplished within the power of each role.
When looking at group divisions, we chose to group directors, producers and designers together --since they often work in tandem with each other and the producing (often white) institution-- when looking at power structures and the hierarchy of American theatre. There were more than three times as many performers as any other discipline, so we ended up with three Actor breakout groups, one for Directors/Producers/Designers and one for Writers.
Actor Group(s) Summary
As the career group with seemingly the least agency in our industry, when tasked to come up with actionable solutions regarding representation of the MENASA communities, actors focused on taking power back and dreaming up creative solutions to hold institutions accountable.
While the overwhelming need for a community based organization to act as a safeguard against professional retaliation and blacklisting was clearly identified (following the model of a “(Non)-Equity Deputy”), actors also focused on individual actions that can be taken to upend power structures and advocate for themselves.
Such actions included asking questions when auditions come up and not being afraid to say no to projects with teams that don’t center and honor MENASA voices.
We identified the importance of feeling empowered to ask questions at every stage of the audition and production process to ensure cultural specificities are handled with intention, such as: “Why does this character wear hijab while they are in their home?” or “Why does my character need an accent?” “What sect of Islam do the characters practice and if they are different, how does that affect their relationship?”
In instances of being in the rehearsal room, there was a focus on the importance of asking for resources such as cultural consultants, dramaturgical support and language coaches and proper research to honor cultural nuance. Religious and cultural research, and the proper avenues to make that happen, are the only ways to avoid offensive generalizations.
Most resoundingly, these groups identified the importance of making our own content. A task which alone can feel massive and daunting, but with a strong foundation of our communities, can be the most rewarding step to a more representative future.
Director/Producer/Designer Group Summary
As the production team historically holds the most institutional power, it is our obligation as producers to advocate for our communities when we exist within and adjacent to artistic institutions.
This can look like communicating to institutional leadership if a play is problematic and why; feeling empowered to say no or tell production to pull the play if need be; and recommending and budgeting for the right artists to serve the story (dramaturgs, cultural consultants, dialect coaches).
The importance of a clear line of intra-community communication can also mitigate these issues. Group members mentioned that one strategy has been reaching out to other directors/producers/designers within one’s network when turning down a project. If multiple people turn down offers, one after another, it more effectively communicates that harmful projects will not be tolerated when it comes to work that features our communities.
The production group highlighted the importance of thorough cultural research before the group is even in the room together. Research and consulting that prioritizes firsthand experience must be highlighted so that the room can be free to feel comfortable disagreeing and debating to achieve a stronger, deeply interrogated message.
Directors and producers must empower and make space for actors to create and communicate boundaries in the room (and even more so when navigating rooms not led by people of color).
A group of student producers joined our ranks and advocated for the importance of creating mentorship programs and interrogating how our standards of who has the authority to direct/play/design tend to change in educational settings.
Mainly, the artistic team group identified the importance of understanding stereotypes (even within our own cultural blindspots) and unapologetically pushing for rooms devoid of them. We agreed as leaders of a production that an important way to end stereotyping is to cultivate rooms where any artist, no matter their position, feels safe identifying and working through the stereotypes together.
Writer Group Summary
Since so many of the identified solutions exist in the realm of new work development, the group of writers came up with creative solutions that involved sharing power and advocating for our authentic voices.
Much of that work begins with education and research, even on cultures that already feel fluent to us. Both as an honoring of the fact that we do not exist within a monolithic experience and respecting that personal identity is endlessly complicated.
Inclusive collaboration can be an avenue to make work that lies in the human experience, not the stereotype: multiple readings, talkbacks with the community, intentional hiring, and using social media to find appropriate creators were offered as ways to make work that has the community in mind. This is also a way to connect with the community being written about, creating a dialogue that can bring up ideas that exist in our blindspots.
Collaborating with folx in the room and empowering actors and cultural consultants to feel comfortable sharing in ownership of a new work is another way to ensure a holistic theatrical experience. Making sure these contributions are recognized in a just manner by way of inclusive billing, including these roles in the language of contracts, and profit sharing.
Success was defined by this group as when actors can feel like they can own and feel comfortable in the words you wrote.
Questions/Concerns we were left with:
Rejoining and Sharing
Our evening ended with rejoining the main circle and sharing what we discovered together, and what we wanted to take away for the future of our collective:
There is a deep need for a community-based organization to act as a support and safeguard against professional retaliation and blacklisting.
Proper research to honor cultural nuance is the first step in all disciplines.
Feel empowered to ask questions and interrogate impact vs intent at any stage of the artistic process.
Feel empowered to say no. It is not your responsibility to fix a problematic piece of art.
Create our own work with each other.
There is work to be done, for the labor of bringing people together is no easy task, and seeing the beautiful faces of our people together in one room reminded us of that. The commitment to inclusivity, to surrendering ego for the empowerment of our siblings are efforts of decolonization, and take much unlearning. Our community seemed to be up to the challenge as we took a breath together and ended the meeting with one word reflections that rang of hope, ignition, and togetherness.