Between The Church and The Law: Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith

Alpa Dave, Abhijeet Rane, Esha More, and Rohish Deshmukh in Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith.

JOAN: I am a faithful child of the Church. I will obey the Church–

CAUCHON [hopefully leaning forward]: You will?

JOAN: —provided it does not command anything impossible.

G.B. Shaw, Saint Joan, Scene VI

About fifteen years ago I noted that it is difficult to portray religion on an American stage. I was writing about Douglas Anderson’s play The Beams Are Creaking at the time, which deals with the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the truly complex figures in 20th Century Christian humanism. But I could just as easily have said the same about two dozen other plays. Religion on stage in the 20th and 21st Century tends to embarrass viewers, just as surely as a quiet, thoughtful discussion of sex once embarrassed them. People will of course shout “But what about Doubt!?” but that is merely the exception that proves the rule, and anyway I am of the opinion that religion is actually a secondary if not tertiary concern in that much-ballyhooed melodrama.

Which leads me to the point. Among contemporary American playwrights the prevailing tactic for overcoming this embarrassment about religion is a simple one: simply include religious characters in a standard melodrama and portray religion not as a subject to be examined or argued but rather as part of the social milieu. Then the play will not be viewed as “religious” or “political” but only as “social commentary.”

Curiously, this Trojan Horse tactic has been employed far more by Muslim playwrights than Christian ones. Ayad Akhtar is probably the most obvious, but one could add many others: Hend Ayoor, Jamil Khoury, Torange Yeghiazarian, Lameece Issaq & Jacob Kader, etc. Yet this makes sense, too. Being Muslim in America means that one’s existence is hidden by a veil — except that this veil is completely a projection of the viewer. The Muslim beneath remains unseen and, in many cases, unseeable. So it is necessary to sneak a certain amount of thematic material into a drama under the guise of a genre.

I’ve seen Yussef El Guindi’s play Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith in three different productions now. Like all of Mr. El Guindi’s plays Ten Acrobats has a palpable, sensuous use of language. It is refreshing to hear a play where the playwright actually loves the sound of language, and can find poetry within the most prosaic of dialogue.

The play certainly falls into the Trojan Horse melodrama category, especially under Agastya Kohli’s direction. Mr. Kohli has decided, too, that this is not a play about religion but rather a play about family drama. His director’s notes say so explicitly but even without that the emphasis on the stage is clear. The cast is, except for the token haoles, a South Asian cast rather than a Southwest Asian one. I am not against this. There are plenty of Desi Muslims. Furthermore I happen also to believe that actors can understand other cultures and portray them accurately on stage if they simply do their homework, ensure their honesty, and, you know, act. But in keeping with our current culture of embarrassment and the fact that this is essentially an evening of community theater, Mr. Kohli has decided that the emphasis should be away from religion and on the melodrama and acting, since that is what translates easiest.

Devika Vyas as the dreamy HD in Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith.

Ten Acrobats in an Amazing Leap of Faith accepts such an interpretation, of course. The cast is beyond capable of supporting it. No one will question the range of actors like Abhijeet Rane and Alpa Dave who can easily hold down parental roles like Kamal and Mona. Even the more emotionally oblique approaches of Roshish Deshmukh and Esha More as the liberated brother and reactionary sister are perfectly in place, and not that far from a more natively Mashriqi approach.

The problem is that religion keeps popping up and won’t go away. There are four separate discussions of atheism. There is a protracted scene between two feminists about the wearing of the hijab. There is a long argument about religion and homosexuality. Evading the religious issue is impossible.

And yet it isn’t religion here that is the problem. It is the discussion of religion. One of my guiding principles in drama is that the people an audience is most likely to find “sympathetic” should not have the strong side in an argument. It simply makes those characters sound like the author’s mouthpiece and makes every scene a foregone conclusion. It also tips me off that a playwright has been lazy about other things. The real arguments that make irrefrangible sense should always be in the mouths of those the audience is likeliest to detest. I do not mean that they are villains. I do not believe in villains or heroes. I also detest “backstory” and other such nonsense. Understanding the arguments of antagonists isn’t supposed to be a gauge of their character or a temptation to check off boxes on their psychological profile. It is an intellectual invitation to question one’s own thoughts and beliefs and, more importantly, to consider changing them. If an audience isn’t provoked to change its perspective, what is the purpose of art beyond mere decoration?

The one weakness of Mr. El Guindi’s script is this. Not only are the strongest arguments too often in the mouths of the most sympathetic characters — the scenes between Huwaida and her professor are patent examples — but also I finish the play every time thinking change is impossible, everyone is unmoveable, and that nothing in the play could go any other way. The final Ramadan scene where Kamal asks his son to play is supposed to be the exception, but in none of the three productions I’ve seen has it ever come off that way. I would uncharitably call it “rigged.”

Mr. El Guindi’s later plays are not like this. I would never call Pilgrims Musa and Sheri in the New World or The Talented Ones rigged. I am convinced this shortcoming is a relic of the play being written in the Bad Old Days post 9-11-2001. American ignorance of the rest of the world was suddenly lethal. American responses to people who looked as though they came from the rest of the world, particularly if they didn’t look like some mythical suburban WASP stereotype was more lethal still. Arab Americans found themselves under physical and moral attack. Arab American artists had to respond by promoting images of themselves living their lives and minding their business, just to prove they were human, and American.

This is the strength of Agastya Kohli’s treatment of Ten Acrobats as a straightforward melodrama. No one will doubt that these are perfectly realistic, perfectly normal human beings in a perfectly normal (and typically dysfunctional) American family. But we are a long way from 2001. Given the recent humanization of Palestinians as a consequence of allegedly civilized and so-much-more-like-us Israel brutalizing their civilians since October 7th, I can optimistically say we Americans are far better prepared for a certain amount of reconsideration. True, there are still knuckleheads in the world. But the other voices are starting to rise above them. Theaters might as well help them along.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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