Senior capstone explores Muslim life after 9/11

As the spring semester moves forward into March, seniors across campus are frantically writing senior theses, working on major projects and generally trying to figure out what their paths will be after graduation. Maryam Chishti ’20 is one such senior working on a capstone project. 

Chishti created her own Independent Interdisciplinary Major (IIM) at Brandeis in Theater for Social Change, and is also an American Studies major. When she proposed her major in the fall of her junior year, she said in an email interview to The Brandeis Hoot that she wanted to do “a senior capstone that would be an original play on a social justice issue. However, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted that issue to be.” Throughout her junior year, Chishti was looking for inspiration to strike.

When the theater department put on Jackie Sibbles Drury’s play, “We Are Proud To Present A Presentation About The Herero of Namibia Formerly Known As South West Africa From The German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915,” or “We Are Proud To Present,” Chishti said that she realized “how powerful it is to shed light on such serious atrocities, even when it’s hard to hear.” The play discusses heavy topics such as genocide and the colonization and decolonization of history.

“It’s the fact that it is hard to hear that makes it so important to share. And, I realized that one of the best things you can do as a writer, especially when you’re stuck on an idea, is to write about what you know. As a New Yorker and a Muslim American who has faced islamophobia in her life and also detainment, I knew that I could have a deeper understanding of this content, and the religion being mentioned more so than other social justice issues happening around the globe,” wrote Chishti to The Hoot.

By the end of her senior fall semester, Chishti knew that she wanted to write about Muslim detainment after 9/11, no longer worried that the topic would be too dark to cover. When she realized the scope of the material, she decided she wanted to create a play about “various real life events that happen to Muslim people, from workplace discrimination, religious questioning, street harassment and also just some lighter moments to show what exactly Islam is, and how it’s not quite the religion those in the West often view it to be.”

Chishti wrote an original script based on true stories. She also used Moustafa Bayoumi’s book, “How Does it Feel to Be a Problem,” as a primary source and researched newspaper articles, government reports, documentaries and had conversations with Muslim people in her community for content. “I came into the semester with about five scenes written, and I’ve since added about seven new scenes to the show, as well as constant revisions. Every day I am re-writing something,” Chishti said of her writing experience.

For Chishti, a major challenge was “getting a cast that was representative of the content of the show. Because a lot of Muslim, Arab, South Asian students are not involved in theater, there’s a lot of trepidation from people in that community about taking this project on,” Chishti wrote to The Hoot. She originally tried to cast in the theater department, but did not find many diverse actors or actors of color through that process, saying she found it to be a “sad reflection on how the theater scene on campus does not represent our overall student body. I realize[d] that if I wanted a truly representative cast, it was not going to show up for me, I had to go and make it happen on my own.”

Chishti’s cast is mainly made up of eight first-time actors who are primarily Muslim or South Asian. “Every time they speak it sounds so earnest, and natural…This is so incredibly exciting to me, because I have never interacted with the cast like this before, and I believe the fact that they have not acted before makes them so incredible,” said Chishti of the cast’s talents. 

As a director, Chishti put a lot of work into bringing the cast together, reaching out to potential actors over the winter break and meeting one-on-one for coffee with the cast members to introduce them to the show in a low-stress environment. These meetings, Chishti said, were how she ended up casting everyone in the show and most of her production staff instead of formal auditions, speaking to the innovative nature of the show itself. She thanked her faculty advisors Cindy Cohen (CAST) and Jen Cleary (THA), and also her Stage Manager Liana Porto ’20 and Assistant Director Batsheva Moskowitz ’22 for their support. “Since this is all new work, and I have never directed before, it’s really nice to turn to someone in the rehearsal room and say ‘does this look good?’ That feedback is everything to me,” said Chishti.

Another challenge Chishti has been facing is finding theater spaces on campus to support her project, as she explains, “Because the show is so personally important to me and now become so important to so many people [and] my cast, on top of the content of the show weighing heavy on me, it’s disheartening to have to argue over why it deserves a weekend in a theater. That being said, every time we have a rehearsal I feel constantly revived.” She has enjoyed working with the cast and called it a “great collaborative process, and I always walk away feeling so excited, and filled with these new ideas for what the show will look like.”

Chishti hopes that after viewing the play, audience members will take with them a “more nuanced understanding of what life was like for Muslims in New York after 9/11, and also a deeper understanding of what Islam is.” She also said that while her initial research was focused on the time immediately surrounding 9/11, islamophobia is still prevalent in today’s world and stories like the ones she highlights in the play could repeat themselves, but believes “we cannot let it happen again.”

“To Be A Problem” will take place the evening of March 21 and March 22 with both matinee and evening performances in the Merrick Theater with exact times coming soon.

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