Islamabad, on common ground

From Pakistan to Portland, an international project brings an insightful slice of life to Artists Rep's stage

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon in an upstairs rehearsal hall at Artists Repertory Theatre, a sitarist and a tabla player were sitting in a far corner, practicing a song that sounded strangely familiar, if not usually from that particular instrumentation. The sitarist, Wajih Ull Hussnain Hamid, motioned to a young singer in a hijab, Razia Abrar, who began to slice the air with a crystalline, mournful tone. “Halleluja,” she sang, to Irfan Masih’s circling tabla rhythm and Hamid’s version of Leonard Cohen’s secret chord. “Halleluja.”

In most ways it was just another familiar scene from another familiar rehearsal hall: people milling about a floor spattered with tape marks, slowly taking their places after break, grabbing quick conversations along the way. This one, though, was a little different considering the who and the where: The performers were from Theatre Wallay, in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and they were rehearsing a play created specifically for American audiences, On Common Ground. Considering that they had landed in Portland 37 hours earlier after a 36-hour flight, and then rehearsed for several hours on Saturday, the performers seemed surprisingly fresh – even, sometimes, chipper. “Thank goodness they’re young,” Linda Alper said with a wry laugh.

The cast of Theatre Wallay’s “On Common Ground,” rehearsing at Artists Rep on Sunday afternoon. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

Alper, an Artists Rep veteran and company member, is one of a team of American theater artists who traveled (three times, in her case) to Islamabad to work with Theatre Wallay on creating a show to bring to the United States. On Common Ground will perform twice at Artists Rep – a sold-out show tonight, Monday, and again on Wednesday, June 28. (That show is sold out, too, but a first-come first-served waiting list will give you a chance.) Then it moves on to Ashland for Green Show performances June 30 and July 2 and 4. In the fall Theatre Wallay will present a workshop at Ithaca College, one of the co-sponsors, in Upstate New York, and finally do a tour and workshops back home in Pakistan.

How did this all come about?

“We started with nothing,” Alper said. She first traveled to Pakistan, as a Fulbright scholar, in 2015. (Director David Studwell and executive producer Kathleen Mulligan, a voice professor at Ithaca College, are also Fulbright scholars, and the exchange program has funding from the State Department, through a grant from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad: It’s the sort of project that could be endangered by shifting priorities in a White House given to more strident forms of cultural symbolism.) First came a series of writing workshops. The Pakistanis chose the show’s theme of public spaces – mosques, squares, wedding spaces, parks, schools, places of free assembly – and everyone wrote personal stories. From that process the actors and writers were chosen (a few are both writers and performers) and Alper chose the pieces that would be included and assembled them in dramatic order, sometimes adding a stitch or two of dialogue to link the scenes.

On Common Ground is an upbeat, often comic show homing in on the quirks and customs of people being people: at least, that’s the shorter, more purely entertaining show that will be seen on the Green Show stage in Ashland. In Portland, the show will be longer, and the mood will darken with a recognition of the complexities and very real threats of violence that have haunted the nation since its bloody and bitter breakaway from India in 1947, and grown gnarlier with conflicting international aims and alliances since the onset of the “war on terror” and the accompanying muddle of jihadists, Western sympathizers, free agents, and national loyalists that has complicated daily life here and elsewhere since Sept. 11, 2001.

Studwell, the director, began a scene, breaking the action frequently to reposition someone or suggest a new approach. Nor only are the performers preparing two versions of the show at once – the Ashland show and the Portland show – they’re also preparing for two very different stage configurations. The Ashland stage is on an outdoor plaza. The Artists Rep shows are on a three-quarter thrust stage, an unfamiliar design for the Pakistani troupe. The action began with an energetic bouncing-about of dialogue from actor to actor, a metaphorical setting of the stage. “Historically, mosques epitomized a public space,” this section began. “They were a gathering place for people from all walks of life. Men and women. Places of education. A place to contemplate, or meditate, or just take a nap.”

The afternoon was hot, and shorts and bare feet abounded. Several of the performers were wearing black gift T-shirts with red lettering: “ARTISTS REP. 35 years. NEW. NOW. NECESSARY.” The stop-and-start and recalibration of the action went quickly and easily. Out of the entire company, only Masih, the tabla player, speaks no English, and most speak it fluently. The musicians are professional, Alper said. The actors, though obviously focused and talented, are not: “There are almost no professional actors in Pakistan.” In their “other” lives some are students, several are teachers, one writes movies scripts, a few have studied in the U.S. as Fulbright scholars. Culturally, they represent a cross-section, from artistic free spirits to more traditional and conservative. They are a community.

A wedding scene began – one of those grand, open, celebratory occasions that give a sense of the particular flavor of a particular culture. And the flavor, in this case, is comic, a sort of rolling drollery. “The uncles sneak out to the parking lot, where a bottle of illegal whiskey is hidden in the trunk of a late-model SUV.” Their mates, it seems, are more interested in the food: “When the buffet opens the aunties rush toward it” – three actors rumble cross-stage like a small herd of stampeding bison – “crushing innocent children in the process.” This latter phrase, delivered with a smile, is not meant to be taken seriously. At some point we hear something about a snake dance, “accompanied by a risqué Bollywood song.”

The company includes, in addition to its musicians, an accomplished dancer, Amna Mawaz Khan, who moves in a stylized but fluid manner, bringing her arms and fingers and everything else into the motion, which is emphatic, balanced, barefoot, expressive, and somehow, despite its low center of gravity, light of essence. At one point four actors approached holding high a blue cloth representing a tent from its four corners, and held it over Khan as she danced. The cloth had a hole in the middle and they dropped it over her head, transforming it into a swirling garment that concealed her. She continued to dance, an individual in a modesty cloak of anonymity. Theater in Pakistan, she commented later, is largely multidisciplinary, embracing music and movement as well as narrative. Like American musical theater, it was suggested, or Western opera. “Yes,” she said. “Like that.”

One of the actors, who goes by the name Haseeb J, is a lean, easy, likable fellow with an enviable upward-curling barbershop-quartet mustache who took his degree from the University of London and seems to see the world in a combination of amused enjoyment and hard-headed recognition of harsher realities. Audiences in Pakistan, he says, like to have their shows interspersed with lots of songs, and Bollywood has a heavy pop-cultural influence. Considering the continuing political, religious, and cultural enmity between India and Pakistan, that seemed a bit surprising. Haseeb shrugged. Personal and political, he suggested, are different things, and the people themselves have much in common: “If I meet a man from India, I tell him, ‘You are my buddy.'”

Islamabad – all of Pakistan, which is sandwiched between India and Afghanistan and has complicated relationships with both – can be a dangerous place where sudden violence can erupt. That became clear when the rehearsal turned to the darker “Portland” portion of the play. “This is that turning point in the play,” director Studwell reminded the cast. What had come before was “in a perfect world … what we do when things aren’t going bad.”

Of course, often they do. Since 9/11, seventy thousand civilians have been killed in Pakistan in terrorist attacks, the play’s script declares, and those attacks are often aimed at shutting down public spaces. Galleries destroyed, mosques, meeting places. A cricket team playing “home” matches, for safety purposes, in another country. “To me,” this section began, “Sufism is to Islam what the spirit is to the body. Take that spirit away and you’re left with a zombie.”

A woman actor commented: “And yesterday there were three blasts.”

“This is not theoretical, right?” Studwell said. “This is reality. This is your lives.”

The scene continued, a dramatic witnessing of an obscene violation. “The terrorists blew themselves up inside the mosque. And then it was over. Forty people had been killed.” One man, an actor related, threw himself on top of his 6-year-old nephew. Later the man was found dead, with twenty bullet holes in his back. But his nephew was safe. During this bleak recitation the tabla and sitar began to sound, and Khan began to dance the awful and revelatory moment. Abrar, the singer, entered, and began to sing, at first a cappella, until the instruments joined in. “Halleluja,” she sang, slowly, clearly. “Halleluja.” It seemed, strangely, a moment of both grief and triumph; a longing, a hope. Most people in most places, it seemed to say, are not radicalized. They are just people, leading ordinary lives, doing the ordinary things that ordinary people do. Birth, life, love, death. Halleluja.

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