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.