In elegant Memorial Hall, we are only moments away from the highly anticipated performance. As the chatter of the audience fades into silence, the curtains rise, giving way to five individuals illuminated by a single stage light. For the next hour, the auditorium is filled with stories centered on coming-of-age experiences for Muslims in America, pre- and post-9/11. These shared tales succeed in moving the audience to laughter, tears, and speechlessness.
This performance is just one of many in the series Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey. Organized by Carolina Performing Arts, the series is dedicated to exploring Muslim culture and identity as well as generating important dialogue regarding Islamophobia. As part of the new Carolina Performing Arts Student Ambassador program, students attend multiple performances and lectures within the series. [Disclosure: author is a student ambassador] Discussions amongst the ambassadors concerning the significance of the performance to Muslim culture and identity follow each program.
The series is the product of Charlotte native and UNC alumna, Aisha Anwar. Graduating in early 2016 with a degree in English, she now works as Engagement Coordinator of Special Projects. Like many Carolina students, Anwar was drawn to UNC because of the “deep sense of community” she experienced while being on campus.
“I helped start Student Ambassadors because, as a student, I wanted people to attend plays and performances as well as [have] someone to talk to afterwards about what I’d just seen,” she says. The program is about “highlighting the plurality of Muslim experiences and identities [in which] students can bond over the performances they attend together [and] come to value the various roles art may play in exploring the human condition.”
Additional performances include Topeng Losari, a dance starring Indonesian performer, Nani. Topeng Losari is a mask dance originating in indigenous Javanese culture and featuring elements of mysticism and magic. Dancers sometimes perform with their eyes closed as a way to pray to God, the Earth, and the body. On February 16th, Playmakers will host a staged reading of The Who and the What, a play which demonstrates Muslim characters struggling to remain true to their cultural and religious heritage while also dealing with the reality of a dynamic cultural landscape that brings demands of modernization and assimilation.
Anwar hopes that, as the student ambassadors delve deeper into analysis of each performance, they go beyond simply enjoying theatre and actually learn something of value. “Performing arts can foster empathy and compassionate dialogue around difficult subjects,” she notes. “I hope these performances will “guide the student ambassadors to not only be more aware but to feel empowered to speak up and be involved.”
However, she wants the influence of the performances and the program to reach beyond the student ambassadors. Anwar suggests that people “engage with literature, art, and films that center the voices of Muslim or other marginalized individuals” in order to become informed on important issues surrounding discrimination of Muslims and other marginalized groups. ”Share the experience with someone and reflect,” she says, “but don’t stop there. Continue the conversation and community building by finding local groups that are dedicated to organizing against racism.”
In providing creative performances, Aisha hopes to use the arts to build bridges between communities. “We, as human beings, can be advocates for one another,” she says. Sometimes unity begins in the darkness of a theater.
By Brittany Grant