Men At Some Time Are Masters of Their Fates: Interview with Maboud Ebrahimzadeh on THE INVISIBLE HAND
Theatre Exile’s production of THE INVISIBLE HAND features an all-star creative team, including director Matt Pfieffer and actors Ian Peakes as Nick Bright, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Bashir, and Anthony Mustafa Adair as Dar. Henrik Eger conducted interviews with all four. In this interview, we hear Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s thoughts on this provocative new work. [Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street] May 12-June 5, 2016; theatreexile.org.
Henrik Eger: What was your first response reading the script of The Invisible Hand?
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh: I thought it was brilliant. I had read Disgraced a few years back and was enthralled by Akhtar’s specificity, though the play itself left a lot of questions unanswered for me. And while it was a step forward in the diversity and representation of characters of color conversation, it didn’t quite do it for me. The Invisible Hand seems to take many of the same questions and handle them with the grace and specificity that Akhtar is becoming known for and surpass my expectations. I think it answers many of the questions that were left unanswered in Disgraced and further examines the perceptions we in the US have about war-torn regions like the one in The Invisible Hand and the circumstances that have led to the actions in the play.
Henrik: What did you bring to this challenging play as an actor?
Maboud: My family and I emigrated from Iran just after the revolution [after a few years in Germany, his family moved to the U.S.]. I think one of the wonderful bits of nuance I was able to mine and merge between myself and the character was the sense of belonging, or the lack thereof.
Bashir is a deeply complex character and, as I see it, is one of the millions of people caught between cultures. As an Iranian growing up mostly in the United States, I often had trouble understanding my own identity. I was trying to assimilate into a culture and society that wouldn’t have me, and from a place where, if I were to return, would see me as an outsider as well. This is not a particularly unique situation but a deeply complex one that breeds a lot of self-doubt.
Bashir’s journey also includes a tumultuous family life that has also added to the stress of being between two worlds and of none. So having no feeling of safety, acceptance, or home can draw a person down some dark paths that one wouldn’t normally expect.
Professionally, I’ve been granted a wonderful series of opportunities which let me explore darker parts of myself without the risk normally involved in doing so. I think it requires a deep understanding and fearlessness to surprise yourself when staring down into that abyss and facing the horrible actions that a story might require of you, and I’ve had a series of directors who don’t shy away from it and provide encouragement to find those hard to reach places where morality is about as clear as a penny in a muck filled pond. And when I do, they don’t judge me for it. I’ve been very lucky.
Henrik: Going into the rehearsal process, what were the toughest parts for you?
Maboud: So much of Bashir is right there in the text. Akhtar has done a marvelous job of dropping delicious moments that tear a person in two in plain sight and still giving enough room to the actor to fill in those gaps. Reconciling two varying motives, forcing a person’s hand, these kinds of moments are especially difficult because he doesn’t let you choose one or the other. He just makes you hang there in uncertainty. And it’s fantastic.
Staying true to those moments where the text doesn’t allow you to move one way or another but makes you want to, that translates to an audience and with the help of Matt Pfeiffer, we were able to stand on that knife’s edge and let them take the journey with us. To show the audience what a character is feeling is pretty easy, but to make the audience feel it too, that’s a bit more difficult.
With this play, it’s incredibly important to maintain the ambiguity and difficulty in these moments and it presented a great and fun challenge for us.
Henrik: What did you bring to a play in which cultures, economies, religions, worldviews, and personalities clash in terms of your own cultural, economic, religious, ideological, and/or behavioral background?
Maboud: Bashir is one of those special cases where there was a fair bit of overlap, specifically, in the personal and cultural life side of things. One thing that strikes me is the history presented in the play in regards to Bretton Woods [“the landmark system for monetary and exchange rate management established in 1944, developed at the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire”] and an argument that Bashir makes in the play, that “all those years the world was looking up to you—my parents’ generation, they thought America was the greatest place on the planet . website link. .” I found this quite intriguing and it made me wonder at times about the unintended consequences of billing America as “the land of opportunity.”
People came to the US in search of a better life, often from broken places. It gave people a sense of hope that there was something better for them somewhere else. And in some ways, it was a total con. Modern America, for as much as I love it, doesn’t hold up the same promise it once offered. And this notion has bred a fair amount of resentment, which I think Bashir associates with—[leading to] a type of selfishness in people to leave their homes, instead of bettering their home countries.
Henrik: Looking back, what are some of the most rewarding parts of the play for you now?
Maboud: I’m going to broaden this a bit and say that beyond the reward of diving headlong into this play, the opportunity to work with the folks on this production was the most rewarding thing. The level of joy, vigor, intelligence, and passion that Matt Pfeiffer, Ian Peakes, Paul Nicholas, Anthony Adair, the design team, and the production crew brought into the room made for an amazing experience. This was a great time.
Henrik: What surprised you about the play and/or your own evolution during the rehearsal process and the performances?
Maboud: Without giving too much away, to the point that Ian Peakes, who plays Nick Bright, alluded to [in a talkback session, where Peakes said that he, as an American captive in Pakistan, and his tough captor, became close buddies, almost straight lovers], there was a huge revelation in the relationship between Bashir and Nick. I think it surprised both of us. We found so much love, loyalty, honesty, banter, and friendship in moments where you’d least expect. Much of the credit goes to Matt Pfeiffer for letting us play together and help find these moments where we can connect. It just added so much to the story.
Henrik: Do you have a sense that audiences and theatre critics relate to the complexity of this play, or do you have a sense that some folks might label you and the other Pakistanis as either one-dimensional terrorists and Nick Bright as the only real human being in the play?
Maboud: I think one of the things that Akhtar does so well is to bring that specific idea very much into focus. I like to give audiences credit and say they wouldn’t reduce the character to a one-dimensional terrorist. Instead, it forces us to look at the role we play as American’s in radicalization.
Romeo and Juliet, among other things is about the radicalization of teenagers and that was written 400 hundred years ago. So it’s not new really. What I think Akhtar does is expose the reality of the role America, and more specifically Globalization and Capitalism, have played in the radicalization of people around the world. And it goes way beyond simple religious ideology.
More blood has been spilled in the name of religion than for any other cause in the world, but money is definitely closing that gap. World economics has a lot to do with the disenfranchisement we see in people around the world, here in the US as well. People are willing to go to greater and greater extremes to make themselves heard and sometimes, it’s not a peaceful extreme.
The play presents us with a very real world where corruption is rampant in government—the US is not immune, and it would be naive to think it so. I think that most audiences see that and with any luck will engage more with their civic leaders and begin to ask for transparency in the decisions that affect the lives of millions at home, and around the world.
Henrik: Given the heated pre-election climate in the U.S., what effect do you think this play could have on U.S. voters?
Maboud: In all likelihood, there will be a small minority of audience members who will feel that no Pakistanis or Muslims can be trusted, but chances are they felt that before they came into the theatre. If one comes in with a blank slate, I don’t think the play will sway minds in that direction. However it will challenge the notions audiences may have about the role of Globalization, Capitalism, and America have had in the world. It may not be a pleasurable challenge but one that must be faced. As for whether or not it will affect voters, hopefully, it’ll lead to a serious demand for transparency and a dispassionate session of self-evaluation.
Henrik: What is the invisible hand that drives you in your life as an actor and a mensch?
Maboud: I think there’s quite a balancing act happening behind the curtain—success, artistic fulfillment, happiness, bills. Without sounding trite, I think I’ve been given an opportunity to fight the good fight, hearts and minds type stuff, and as difficult as it may be sometimes, it’s one I relish. I think humanity is flawed, and I think the answer to much of our problems is in ourselves:
“Men at some time are masters of their fates:/ The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” [Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I, ii)]
I think the first line of that gets overlooked quite a lot, and I think it’s just as important as the idea it precedes. When we have the opportunity to make a difference, to take hold of fate, it’s a prospect that must be considered.
Henrik: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Maboud: Thank you. I think I’ve gone on quite enough.
Take Ten | Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
A familiar presence on stages across the Washington area, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh appears in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife at Theatre J through July 5. Recent credits include The BFG at Imagination Stage; Pericles and Love’s Labour’s Lost at Taffety Punk Theatre Company; The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, bobrauschenbergamerica, and Scorched at Forum Theatre; and Water by the Spoonful and Edgar and Annabel at Studio Theatre. As if that weren’t enough, his work has also been seen at Keegan Theatre, Hub Theatre, Round House Theatre, 1st Stage, and Rorschach Theatre. (Take Ten)
1 additional reading. What was the first show you ever saw?
The very first show I remember was Chicago at the old Morris Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore. I have a vague memory of a middle school field trip to New York where I think we saw Les Miserables. To be honest, I didn’t really care enough at that age to pay much attention. I was probably too busy pretending to be too macho or too cool or too something.
2. What was your first involvement in a theatrical production?
There was a thing called the Senior Farewells in high school. I used to do impressions and impersonations of a few teachers so they asked if I would be interested in doing a largely improvised piece about our teachers when they were high school students. My first meaningful involvement in a theatrical production was at Howard Community College doing a production of Pippin directed by Susan Kramer.
3. What is your favorite play or musical, and why do you like it so much?
This is a tough one. I can tell you that my favorite play, as of right now, is Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. Very few plays in American theatre offer me much in the way of cultural resonance. That’s not to say I identify with the story, just that it is one of the few pieces of theatre where I find any of the cultural associations remotely relatable. Though Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo still hits me where it hurts. Ryan Rilette and Jeremy Skidmore gave me something really special on that one.
4. What’s the worst day job you ever took?
Selling home security systems. Door to door. For one summer. It didn’t go very well. A sweaty middle-eastern guy with dark facial hair knocking on your door saying the words “Home” and “Security”… I’m not entirely sure why they even hired me.
5. What is your most embarrassing moment in the theatre?
Well there was a night during A Few Good Men at Keegan Theatre when I was wearing the wrong pants. They belonged to a female castmate. It was a tight scene.
6. What do you enjoy most about working on The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife?
The people. Every single person involved in this production is absolutely splendid. Eleanor Holdridge put together a fabulous group and it’s truly a privilege to be in their midst. Plus, I get to watch four superb actors work some serious magic ten feet to my left. What’s not to enjoy.
7. Other than your significant other, who’s your dream date (living or dead), and why?
My parents – before they fled the country with me in tow. I’d really like to meet those two when Iran was home and they were still busy figuring themselves out.
8. What is your dream role/job?
Dream role: All of them. Dream job: I’ve got it.
9. If you could travel back in time, what famous production or performance would you choose to see?
Assuming I could get back to the present time relatively unscathed… I don’t know. I don’t think I could choose. The nature of theatre is fleeting. And while the notion of getting to see a past production or performance is attractive, part of me wants to keep the mystery of it all a secret.
10. What advice would you give to an eight year-old smitten by theatre / for a graduating MFA student?
I will refer you to a 22-year old Hunter S. Thompson who put it quite eloquently in a letter to a friend who was seeking his advice. You really should read the whole thing but here’s a few lines he wrote:
“I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) …
So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.”
So make mistakes. Get hurt. Break a bone. Get a scar. Enjoy the show.
The Brush Strokes of Identity
(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–Middle Eastern American Theatre series
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
MABOUD EBRAHIMZADEH: I am an artist. Most people know me as an actor. I also write, direct, produce, and I recently launched a podcast about theatre in DC called “Lights Up: The DC Theatre Podcast”. In my work as an actor, I aim to be honest. Theatre is one of the few mediums in which an artist can respond to the response they are given the very moment it happens. It’s a rare thing and it’s not one I take for granted. It’s also one where it’s rarely ever the same twice. Can a painter paint the same portrait exactly the same way twice? I’d like to think not. Not in the brush strokes, nor a sculptor with the strikes of a chisel, nor a writer with the ink from a pen. How a writer interprets a feeling as they are describing it on paper; will they ever feel it the same when writing it a second time? The only way I can even begin to approach my work is with honesty. Find where the truth is, and let it be the compass. It’s simple, yet easily one of the most difficult things to grasp that I struggle with it every day. For me it is really about learning. The day I don’t learn something, that’s the day quit. I’ll start doing something else. See? I sound like a new age idiot. And yet, there it is.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
ME: To describe how I identify along the lines of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage is a sordid affair. I was born in Iran in 1981, came to the United States with a vocabulary consisting of Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, the Redskins, the Yankees, Superman, John Wayne, and Ford Mustang. I learned English in school, but I learned to speak English by watching movies. Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and 007 were solid go-to’s for a kid looking for key phrases to aide in assimilating. But when I tried to introduce myself like the secret agent I so adored, I quickly realized that “Ebrahimzadeh. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh” was never going to come off as smoothly. I was more George McFly than James Bond, and that was only if I was lucky.
Fast-forward twenty-odd years to September 2001- I’d discovered something about myself that I’d only just begun to fully understand; that the theatre was where I wanted to be. I saw myself along side those same faces from my American childhood, reciting dialogue that somebody would recall and perhaps somewhere a kid would recite the same words I spoke to learn a new language.
Now of course racism and discrimination had reared their ugly heads several times over. I quickly recognized their snarling faces and seething voices, but nothing prepared me for what would happen after September 11, 2001. Suddenly, my entire identity, as it was perceived by the world around me, had changed. I wasn’t just Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. I was Maboud Suspicious Ebrahimzadeh. Without delving any further into that dark and twisted relationship that was forced onto me, I can simply tell you that my identity has been defined more by the perceptions of those around me than myself.
So how do I identify? I don’t. I don’t identify at all. Or at least in certain ways I don’t. How has it influenced my work? Greatly. I refuse to bring my identity to my work. And when I present myself in front of a group of auditors looking at me and getting ready to hear the sides I’ve prepared, I wait for the look on their faces to change when they realize that I, my “identity”, should have less to do with what they see, and more to do with what I bring. When they realize that the brown kid with the difficult to pronounce name can be more American than they imagined. But unfortunately, I can’t wash my “identity” off of my face when so many are ready and willing to paint it back on.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
ME: My “identity”, and I continue to put it in quotes because it’s a loaded term, has impacted my ability to work in American Theatre. In some cases, it’s great. I get called in for the middle-eastern characters purely because of type, and I take advantage of the fact that I’m in the room to show them that I have more to offer than just my identity and affinity with those regional accents. If a role could be done with an accent, possibly even called for, I’ll do it without one just to make a point. I’ll let them ask for an accent. Call it a power trip or whatever you like, I just want it to be an active decision for them as opposed to a presumption.
Do I owe certain opportunities to “who” I am? Yes, absolutely. In some cases, those where I come in as the “ethnic talent”, I manage to get my hands on the sides for a different character that I am more interested in that isn’t the ethnic role, and I sweet-talk my way into reading it for them. In some cases, I end up getting cast outside of the ethnic role because of my decision.
In others, they only want me for that role because that’s what they want. They want the “identity” they assign me plastered on the face of the character I play. In ways, they’re not asking me to play a character or anything else. They’re asking me to wear the clothes my “identity” should wear and say the words with the accent my “identity” would have. That’s the real act. I’m not sure there if there is such a thing as multi-cultural or color-blind casting. That any of that kind of thinking is post-racial. I doubt it. It’s mired in race and ethnicity.
So when I do get my hands on an ethnic role, I take great effort to push the boundary of the perceived identity of that character, not just because it’s my job, but because if I can convince a few people that my “identity” has little to nothing with how honestly a character and their motivations can be portrayed, then and only then, I’m a little more okay with the whole thing. Because I was able to move the character past the typical idea of what the “identity” of the character looks like.
Has my “identity” has opened doors or closed doors? Yes. Simultaneously.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
ME: Oh boy. This question. No. Big. Effing. No. Let me preface that by saying… Yes, at the moment we do need it. But personally, I hate it. I despise the very idea of it. I love the idea of sharing different cultures through storytelling. I just don’t believe it should only be happening in those specific places. I’m sure the story of the dying grandfather of a family who was aided by Che Guevara in Guatemala in 1954 has just as much value spoken in Spanish as in English. I mean to say that a story, a play, while it can draw a lot of context from the language in which it was spoken, is not limited to just the culture from which it comes from.
If that were the case we’d have to go to a Norwegian theatre to see Ibsen, a Russian theatre to see Chekov, a Spanish theatre to see Lorca, and a Greek theatre to see Aeschylus. But we don’t because those works have been accepted into the American palette. Because at some point those tales were brought to us. We didn’t go looking for them. They came on horseback in the back of a cart smelling of shit and shit stew and we took them in.
Locking them in a box limited to a certain audience ensures that they will stay there. And we as an audience will never understand, much less embrace, another culture. The other option would be to bring the audiences into the culturally specific theatres. And since we can’t really control where audiences go, take the shows to them.
Until we theatre-makers actively decide that foreign plays, that aren’t considered classics, have a place on our stages, then they will continue to be relegated to the communities of those who wrote them. They will rarely grow beyond, and we will all be worse off for it. Stories are not meant to be told in a single language, on a single stage, for a single audience; they are meant for every one. Put up the Spanish play translated for an English speaking audience, or leave it in Spanish and find a way to still tell that story to a non-Spanish speaking audience, and set it next to Shakespeare and Sarah Kane while Tom Stoppard stirs the pot with Sophie Treadwell, and Moliere.
Put the plays that deal with gender-issues, next to the ones that deal with race, next to the ones with ethnicity, next to the ones that deal with identity, next to the ones that deal with history, war, love, and community. Put them all together on every stage in America all the time.
If it’s your mission to produce only Shakespeare, that’s fine I get it; Gender plays, sure I get it; African-American History, yeah I get it; but when you realize how much that can limit your reach, don’t be surprised. And I know it’s not prefacing if you do so after the fact.
JL: What is the current state of Middle Eastern Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
ME: There’s no Middle Eastern Theatre in DC. It’s laughable. There are plays about the wars in the Middle East. But there is no Middle Eastern Theatre in DC. Sorry.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
ME: Include the community. Hire locally as often as possible. Nurture artists in the community and give them a reason to stay. As for Middle Eastern Theatre in DC, start by bringing their plays to our stages. Give the Middle Eastern community something that applies to them on a visceral level. Give them something to connect to and show them how their stories are our stories, and then maybe we can understand that our stories are their stories too. Show everyone all the stories of all races, ethnicities, genders, sexes, beliefs, and convictions, and then, maybe, we can transcend all of those things and create a cannon for human kind. I mean come on; this is the nation’s capitol. We can do better.
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is an artist based in Washington DC. He is also the creator and host of Lights Up: The DC Theatre Podcast. Recent DC area credits include A Man, His Wife, and His Hat at The Hub Theatre, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo at Round House Theatre, Side Man at 1st Stage, After the Quake at Rorschach Theatre, Scorched and Bobrauschenbergamerica at Forum Theatre. He can be seen on stage later this summer in A Few Good Men at Keegan Theatre.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com
This article was featured in the TCG Circle publication.