The show at Georgetown University was a first for me, and maybe, according to Waleed Shamil, a first for this country. In a black box space in the bowels of the school’s Davis Performing Arts Center, an Iraqi actress, Layla Mohammed, enacted in Arabic the narrative of American playwright Heather Raffo’s “9 Parts of Desire,” a drama giving voice to nine ordinary Iraqi women.
Mohammed’s passionate portraiture spoke a universal language of defiance and endurance. Just as remarkable, however, was an observation by director Shamil — who struggled with red tape and money problems to bring the modest production here — that in all his years as a drama professor at Baghdad University, he could not recall another play mounted by Iraqi artists making its way to an American stage.
Whether or not Shamil’s definitive declaration was accurate, the thought that the exchange of cultural ideas could be so anemic between the United States and a country it remade by force at a cost of thousands of lives was deeply troubling to contemplate. I’ve seen many productions by British and American companies, from the celebrated “Black Watch” to Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still,” that filter the Iraq War through Western imaginations. I’ve also seen some intriguing pieces from the Middle East, such as an Arabic “Richard III” at the Kennedy Center and the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv’s “Return from Haifa” at Theater J. But not once over the past decade to have been exposed to the voice of an Iraqi dramatic artist? As far as most American theatergoers might be aware, such a voice does not exist.
The relatively paltry incidence of artistic link-ups with parts of the world we desperately need to understand — and vice versa — was chewed over and elucidated for three days at Georgetown, where theater and foreign-policy experts from around the world mingled at a conference on global performance, civic imagination and cultural diplomacy. Organized by professors Derek Goldman and Cynthia Schneider, the “convening” was a rare gathering that sought both to inventory the existing opportunities for sending theater across borders and examine ways that might help unite the world’s dramatic endeavors in a sort of intellectual free trade zone.
It’s only right that Georgetown would suggest a city of foreign policy think tanks and embassies as a potential American gateway for international theater. Some of this already springs up, in the national arts festivals at the Kennedy Center (Coming soon: Northern Europe), and through programming at Theater J, with its yearly festival, Voices From a Changing Middle East. Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse is amping up the global repertory with new German plays and avant-garde British pieces, and Shakespeare Theatre Company champions influential productions from the British Isles.
But how to move theater from around the world out of the purgatorial periphery of specialized audiences, inadequate translations and very short stays? Those thornier practicalities were not as easy to address at a meeting with such a large and rangy agenda, one that tried both to define the role of global theater in a city such as Washington, and to examine how theater was knitted into other cultures as well as institutions of higher learning.
Academics and theater practitioners from as far as the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent joined a predominantly American assemblage of about 75 participants, who offered insights into the cultural landscapes of nations as diverse as Iran, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Netherlands. It was, it seemed, a global meet-and-greet. Highly regarded American performance artists such as Ping Chong described collaborative projects in Africa and Asia. Nonprofit organizations such as the Global Arts Corps detailed efforts at fostering peace and reconciliation in conflict zones by creating theater. Artistic directors such as Torange Yeghiazarian of Los Angeles-based Golden Thread Productions expounded on their explorations of theater under repressive regimes, as she did in a poignant video of a modern adaptation of “Oedipus” performed in a Tehran slum.
“I personally have never been to a gathering like this,” Marvin Carlson, a professor at the City University of New York and leading expert on Middle Eastern theater, told the attendees. The assembled experts suggested a network yet to take full advantage of its knowledge and prestige in furthering the goals of cultural diplomacy. While Oxford PhD candidate and Jordanian-born Nadia Oweidat described persistent obstacles to freedom of expression in many Arab societies, others, such as Nicolas Kent, former artistic director of London’s Tricycle Theatre, explained how theatrical projects such as “The Great Game: Afghanistan” had built bridges to unlikely audiences, at the Pentagon and in the British military.
If, as Carlson suggested, the scope and makeup of the Georgetown get-together was something unprecedented, then perhaps it will spur original thinking about how theater can be a more useful conveyance for making connections between cultures. “It would be so great if we could find a way to have that impact noticed more,” Goldman said of the diverse initiatives represented at the convening. That seemed a hope that everyone agreed with.