“The aftermath of 9/11 is not over,” says Andrea Assaf. “Far from it. The military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly aren’t over. The impact of those wars on people—whether we’re talking about U.S. veterans, refugees, or people living there—is far from over.”
Assaf is a writer, performer, director, cultural organizer, founding artistic director of the interdisciplinary performance company Art2Action, and a board member of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA). She lived in New York at the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and has now returned to the city with her show Eleven Reflections on September, which performs at La MaMa, E.T.C. April 30-May 17 in association with Art2Action and in partnership with Hi-ARTS.
DAN BACALZO: I know the starting point for this show is the September 11 attacks. But perhaps you can tell me about your process for creating this piece.
ANDREA ASSAF: The writing began with a series of poems viscerally responding to initially 9/11 and then the wave of anti-Arab backlash and Islamophobia, the culture war, and all of that nationalist fervor that we experienced right after 9/11. When I started, I wasn’t really thinking of a theater piece; I was just writing because I needed a place to put all of that, and in my own work, when it’s really an emotional response to something, it tends to come out in poetry.
DB: At what point did it start to become a piece of theater?
AA: Ten years later, I had the opportunity to be the artist-in-residence with Pangea World Theater, supported by the Princess Grace Award. I wanted to explore my own Middle Eastern American heritage and collaborate with musicians who play Middle Eastern instruments. I found some wonderful collaborators in Minneapolis—especially Pramila Vasudevan, whose media design we’re still using in this version of the production, and Aida Shahghasemi, who is the lead musician and vocalist for the piece. She’s stayed with the project since 2011 in its various iterations.
DB: Do you look at the piece differently now as opposed to when you first created it?
AA: Every time I come back to this piece, I think, “is it still relevant?” And then something crazy in the world happens and it reminds me that yes, in fact, it is—and particularly relevant in New York. I’m very excited and kind of terrified to do this piece here in New York because the actual experience of 9/11 is still so raw for everyone.
DB: I know you’re performing your poetry in the show. But is Aida also performing your lyrics?
AA: There’s only one small place where a piece of a poem became lyrics. I think of this piece as a meeting of professionals in different disciplines. It’s very different from my other theater work. I come from that tradition of director is God and actors obey, and this piece is not that. This piece is very much a collaboration among very different artists from very different aesthetic traditions.
In my case, it is poetry. Aida is from Iran originally, so she’s singing in Farsi and she plays this instrument called the daf, which is a large framed drum. We also have a violinist on the team who is originally from Turkey, Eylem Basaldi, who plays our string instruments. And a new percussionist, Natalia Perlaza; she’s from Columbia, but she studied in Egypt and has spent a long time studying Arab music. We have a new dancer/choreographer, Donna Mejia, who dances a fusion form of Arab and North African secular traditions mixed with hip-hop and electronica. There’s an interesting complexity between that form of dance—which is usually seen as popular entertainment and often sexualized—and what I’m doing, which is hard-core political spoken word.
DB: Can you talk a little more about the structure of the piece?
AA: The narrative is the metanarrative of the time we’ve all been living through since 9/11, and the poetry is this map, these points of response to that metanarrative that we journey through. When I first started creating this production, it was 2011, and it was the beginning of the Arab Spring. That version ended with Tahrir Square, which is a lot more complicated now. There’s a new piece at the end that is very much for Syria, called “In the blood of spring.” The musicians are sometimes in a scene, sometimes they’re off to the side. The world of the media is very prominent; it creates a kind of immersive environment for the performers because we’re using a scrim. So, it’s somewhere between a concert, a performance art piece, and a slam night. It’s all of the above.
DB: I want to go back to something you said a little earlier in terms of how this is a different kind of collaboration than the traditional director structure. I know that you have been doing a lot of different forms of collaboration through community-based work, and I wondered how that has influenced the way this piece has come together?
AA: I was just tagged on Facebook by a dancer who was at the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange when I was an apprentice there years ago, pre-9/11. It was such a nice reminder of what I learned through the Dance Exchange artists and all of the artists that I’ve met through organizations like Alternate Roots, and cross-cultural and international collaborations with groups like Kinding Sindaw and with Mujeras en Ritual Danza-Teatro in Mexico. How do you not fall into historical power dynamics when you’re working with communities, or how do we all bring our very complicated histories to a collaborative process? And so, yeah, I’ve engaged for well over a decade in understanding how to collaborate in contexts that are fraught with power issues. But there’s this way I think I’ve sometimes separated how I work with communities and how I work professionally. I’m used to functioning one way in the professional theater world and a different way in community collaborations, or working with students, or teaching. And I don’t want to say that community-based work is about teaching. Although there’s always a pedagogical aspect to it, it’s best when it goes both ways, when it’s a real exchange.
So, in a way, I’ve brought that kind of process to this project with highly professional artists who really have a tremendous level of expertise in their disciplines. It’s really so much about listening. Sometimes, there are set pieces in the music, but very often we’re mapping the cues and the points where we need to intersect in the piece, with a lot of room for improvisation and listening in between. I guess the best analogy musically would be jazz, which is largely structured improvisation. Much of Middle Eastern music is like that, too. What’s also interesting is that people who are not familiar with Middle Eastern forms might think that it all goes together quite easily, but in fact we’ve got a musician from Iran, another one from Turkey, and another from Columbia who has studied in Egypt, so they’re all coming from different rhythm backgrounds. But there’s enough parallel in how they work to find the music together.
DB: Since you have done this piece previously elsewhere, what kinds of reactions have you gotten from audience members?
AA: The reception has always been very—it’s hard to find the right word. I want to say, very positive, but that’s complicated. Sometimes people just cry for awhile after, or during because it’s so much about war and it all depends on what position you’re experiencing the work from. I think my experience with Arab American communities or Middle Eastern communities has been that this show creates a space of mourning, a place where it’s possible to feel and cry in a world where we’re not often given that opportunity to just sit and actually mourn because new things are always happening and there’s such an urgency to surviving and getting through, even if you’re in the States. Even if you don’t have family in a war zone, there’s still this sense of getting through. Let’s just get through this, lay low, wave our little American flag, and smile and make sure everything is okay. And so in that sense, I do think of the piece as an hour and 15 minute lament that is meant to give us a chance to cry if we need to cry. People who are experiencing it from a different positionality will sometimes say, “You made me think of things I’ve never thought of before. I’m going to go home and wrestle with this for awhile.” I’ve had military folks, veterans, having reactions such as needing to leave the room but not the building, which is interesting.
DB: So they eventually come back?
AA: They come back for the dialogue. The piece engages with experiences of trauma pretty head on. We try to be really thoughtful and careful about that, and provide support resources. Also, it’s really, really important that every single performance has a post-show dialogue. I don’t want people to go away feeling a lot of stuff and feeling isolated. The point is to break that isolation and hopefully get people in the room together, who might not otherwise ever have a conversation, to share and experience. We did a concert version of this at the University of South Florida, and we had military people and veterans in the audience together with Muslim student leaders. We had a retired three-star general with a disabled veteran who served in Iraq and is now in a wheelchair trying to figure out why this happened to him. And we had all of these people talking to each other publicly about the war and the media. There was this extraordinary moment when this very religiously devout student leader, who is a Palestinian Muslim, stood up and said to this retired general, “With all due respect, sir, we have a saying in Palestine that goes, ‘Dear America, your 9/11 is our 24/7.’” And those moments are why I do it. It’s not just about the show. It’s about how does the show help us have another kind of conversation that the news media never lets us have.
DB: But what is it that you want to emphasize in the show itself?
AA: What I hope this piece does is flip the script in a way. It looks at how the people who suffer the most in any military conflict are always the women and children. Everything that we tend to see is mostly about men and the occasional female soldier that’s actually featured on the news, which is rare. And so by having an ensemble composed of all women artists, and using a lot of media that focuses on images of women, I’m trying to open up the conversation. I think if we really understand the choices we’ve made and the consequences of our actions as a nation, we have to confront how we feel about it. And in a way, that’s what I hope this performance helps us do. Not to make anyone feel guilty. But to help us make better decisions in the future.
La MaMa in association with Art2Action presents Eleven Reflections on September in partnership with Hi-ARTS. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://lamama.org/eleven-reflections-on-september.