Integrating Islam onto our Stage and "The Will of Bernard Boynton"

If we are to use theatre to build community, are we better served by a theatre that focuses on making us doubt and question or by one seeking to open our understanding and empathy? These are not mutually exclusive, just as the head and the heart are not mutually exclusive. But which is the servant and which the master? Much of modern theatre digs into its subjects with relentless questioning. This is useful when confronting powerful orthodoxies, hegemons and hypocrisies. But what about when we're handling new and possibly mind-shifting worldviews?

Islam is a part of our community, but a part that our community is not yet comfortable with. It goes deeper than a war on terror. A community so steeped in Christianity starts off on a prejudiced footing. Looking at history, we see how the Christian message has been shaped in opposition to Islam and framed to counter Muhammad's claims to Prophethood. For this and other reasons, many Americans maintain a surface-level tolerance of Muslims, but keep a psychic distance and a hidden storehouse of suspicion. Some of us might go so far as to call Islam "a religion of peace" without really understanding how that is or perhaps not even believing it. 

This is just the sort of social and psychological division that theatre can help bridge. Theatre works best when it allows us to see different points of view and feel characters' experiences from the inside--that is, through empathy. If the story is well-told, we can imagine American audiences opening up to the point of view and experience of a faithful Muslim individual or family. What about opening ourselves up to the principles, rituals and inner patterns of the Muslim Faith?

Since 9/11, mindful producers in the American theatre have sought to bring Muslim perspectives to the stage. Playwrights and actors of Middle-Eastern descent have been sought out and encouraged, and this is a good thing. Stories of Iraqis, Afghanis and Palestinians have helped humanize and familiarize Muslims who might otherwise be seen as Other. But Islam itself may be neglected in the bargain. For example, one recent, celebrated play treats Islam essentially as a political or tribal identity, eviscerating any sense of it as a viable spiritual path. Is a default setting in the theatre today to see every giant as a Goliath to be taken down? Not every giant means us harm. Can we overcome an institutional mistrust of institutions when it hinders our mission of opening up understanding? 

Watching "Fiddler on the Roof" immerses us in the culture, rites and spirit of Orthodox Judaism, and we all love it. Noh drama steeps us profoundly in a worldview of Zen Buddhism, and we teach it at university. I watched the TV show "Kung Fu" as a kid, and no one was afraid I was going to become a Shaolin Monk or a Taoist. I was learning though, seeing anew from a story steeped in a worldview, philosophy or belief different from my own. 

You’d never it know it from the title, but “The Will of Bernard Boynton” strives to do something similar. The play features an American who is a Muslim convert, but on a deeper level, Islam and Islamic mysticism is a kind of matrix in which the play is molded. (That and Classic Country, but that's for another blog.) You may know that the term 'Islam' signifies submission to the will of God and the peace that is found therein. Well, the play is set in Northern New England, a place of rugged Individualism that is the antithesis of this concept, in the town of Liberty, Maine--a very real place, only a stone's throw from my Dad's house. It is a play about liberty and submission, about the free will of the soul and the powerful jinns of ancestors and legacy. 

Dramaturg Ben French offers some insight in his Afterword to the play:

When performing the Sufi ceremony of the whirling dervishes, a group of participants spins in a mesmerizing circle, meditating on Allah and their place in the universe. As they spin, they drop their left hand towards the ground while their right reaches up. In this sacred act established by the followers of the Sufi poet Rumi, individuals are reminded that they are inextricably tied between this Earth and something much bigger than them—to the cosmos, to the seen and the unseen, to Allah.

Much like the whirling dervishes, everyone in Mark Perry’s new play ‘The Will of Bernard Boynton’ is inextricably caught between the immediate and the sustained. His characters are tied to one another, even after the tragic end of one life. They struggle with death, grief, the inevitability of legacy, and overarching questions of liberty. But as the play progresses and memories unfurl, the play itself becomes a ritual, a spiritual experience in and of itself…

Perry’s work in The Will of Bernard Boynton artfully turns a stage play into a stimulating poetic, melodic meditation on questions of liberty... Ultimately, ... seemingly daunting questions are brought down to an immediate, urgent, human level...
— Ben French

This is just one play and one approach, and we need more. The threat posed by not understanding Islam is not simply theoretical and its effects are not far off. Our community is affected by this impasse of cultural understanding. 5 months ago, an act of hate rocked our community of Chapel Hill, and ripples of it spread throughout the world. Only after that terrible loss did we get to know "our three winners": Deah, Yusor, and Razan. These were three vibrant examples of the goodness, charity and faith taught in Islam, true fruits of that tree, pure water from that spring. They were a vital part of our community here in Chapel Hill, and I can’t help but think that an alienating societal attitude towards Muslims emboldened a sick mind to insist otherwise.