As I took my seat in the Power Center on an unusually warm Saturday evening in February, I am greeted by the words “BEYOND SACRED: Voices of the Muslim Identity” being projected on a black backdrop. As I wait and wiggle around in my seat, the second half of the phrase changes, alternating to so many different languages that I lose count; many I could not name just by looking. I am already excited.
Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity by Ping Chong + Company is one of those works whose creation process is as interesting as the performance itself. It is full of contradictions and clarifications and is a fuller narrative for it. As an English major and lover of the theater, Beyond Sacred showed the innate power of well crafted stories to be more powerful than show stop numbers (though I love them dearly). The words were all the razzle dazzle this company needed to leave their audience spellbound.
The production style was minimalist. 5 chairs, 5 music stands, 5 microphones, 5 spotlights, 5 performers, 2 American Sign Language interpreters, and a handful of projections on an otherwise empty stage. As I said, they didn’t need anything more. The minimalism was combined with patterns of clapping, repetition of dates, alternating spotlights as the narration passed from person to person to create an interweaving and complex story of what it means to be Muslim, today and historically. 5 stories of identity, among a vast diverse range of intersecting identities that make up the Muslim community worldwide. Because their main message revolves around subverting the misconception that there is a single Muslim identity.
To give context to these five stories, one of the first parts of the performance is a quiz style list of important dates. Here, early on, the important role of research is evident- Research into the history of Muslim identity. As well as the careful construction and presentation of information. All the performers on stage are telling their own stories, but they are interwoven with their fellow performers narratives. They pass the spotlight between them if you will.
Originally, each performer responded to a call for people to tell their story. They were interviewed by the writers. Then from those interviews, these 5- Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani, Ferdous Dehqan, Kadin Herring, Amir Khafagy, and Maha Syed- were chosen. From those interviews the writers created Beyond Sacred. During the Q&A, we learned that the performers always had the ultimate say on wording- it was of course their story-, and it was interesting to hear the there was often back and forth as the creators searched for just the right presentation.
Want to learn more about the creation of Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity? Check out this YouTube video below:
As I noted, there was a Q&A afterwards. I found this part really interesting because here the performers were able to address how they had re-written/added to the ending which addressed recent events during the Trump administration’s first days in office. They had re-written the ending after the election and even within the last month since the inauguration, it had started to sound dated. So in the last week or so each performer was asked to put into words their thoughts. Their words focused on the importance “of telling your own story” and not letting others create representations of you (Amir Khafagy).
When asked by an audience member about their thoughts on doing this performance when those buying tickets were open to their message and likely “sympathetic”, the response was overwhelmingly that it is still important. Khafagy urged us to realize that question in itself comes from a place of privilege, encoded with the idea that we already know everything there is to know about being Muslim. Other answers focused on how the show is empowering and enlightening to everyone, or the performers wouldn’t feel they didn’t do what they set out to.
Overall, the night was 75 minutes of intense emotion, laughter, revelations, self reflection, and an urgent call to be an active ally and activist. I would recommend everyone see Beyond Sacred: Voices of a Muslim Identity.
And with UMS’ archived livestream you can! Click below! Livestream begins around minute 16.