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CAATA Reflections: Pre-conference of West & Central Asian American Artists 2016

By Shruti Purkayastha

Re-posted with permission from the TeAda Productions newsletter, November 2016

Editor’s Note:  In October 2016, Art2Action co-organized the pre-conference to the National Asian American Theatre Festival, produced by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA), hosted for the first time by Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).  The pre-conference convened Middle Eastern, West & Central Asian American artists and allies for long weekend of dialogue and creative exchange, including a reading at the Portland Library, a panel at the University of Oregon organized by Dr. Michael Malek Najjar, a keynote address by Zeyba Rahman (archived on HowlRound), an OSF Green Show concert by Art2Action artists, an Open Mic at Hearsay Bar & Lounge, and a community workshop with Iraqi refugees beautifully faciliated by TeAda Productions.  The pre-conference was made possible by the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.  We are grateful for this wonderful reflection by TeAda’s Shruti Purkayastha, below.

TeAda Productions has become such a home space for me.  This was my first time entering the CAATA CONFEST space this year hosted by Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  This was also my first time North of San Francisco, first time “touring” with Leilani and Ova, first time truly engaging with a national Asian-American Theater landscape, first time seeing performances on the famous OSF stages.

My first weekend, I supported the West Asian pre-conference, sharing with artists who identify with the working identities of “Middle Eastern/West & Central Asian American.” I met Andrea Assaf, of Art2Action and pre-conference coordinator briefly Friday night, and geared up to be open to whatever might come up for our weekend’s work with artists and community.  In an effort to support vital conversations, I was honored to witness stories and visioning. What a gift to support a space for this group of people that is not centering a white European lens.  Questions that struck me: What does it mean to approach our work around intersecting stories and issues? When is identity a tool for this, for raising our voices prouder and stronger, building the resilience of ourselves and our communities? How do we support each other cross-culturally, holding the broad national, gender, religious, artistic experiences and backgrounds.

Pre-conference participants experiencing TeAda’s Refugee Nation workshop

I learned how many people do not always immediately identify as Middle Eastern– a term assigned to the region by the British Empire in the 1850s. To this day, the information we receive from news and media outlets in the US are terribly skewed, often depending on centuries old racism as shorthand in stories. Through the day-long sessions, and the evening open mic I had the honor of hosting, I learned about the amazingly diverse religions and spiritualities of the region.  I learned about the risks Palestinian artists take to perform their truths, to the silencing sound of death threats at times. I heard stories of highly militarized regions, where it was normal to learn how to shoot a gun in elementary school, where resilience and art is grown in the midst of hearing about loved ones lost in bombings. I heard love stories and lullabies from grandmothers that reminded me of my own Bengali musical heritage.  I witnessed the magic of bringing people with common experience together, some of whom had never had a space centering this identity. So much was shared, and when you are gifted stories, you offer something in return. I offered a Bengali folk song, honoring the Ganges river, a reminder of how water and land connect all of us.

Shruti Purkayastha hosting open mic and performing a Bengali folk song

On Sunday, we had the opportunity to connect with community members, recent Iraqi refugee-status immigrant families, bringing together people ages 10 months to senior with the magic of theater games and storytelling. We played together, celebrated over 12 languages in the room, shared in embodied images, and witnessed stories. A huge thanks to the several artists that stepped up to offer Arabic translation in solidarity, a first for a couple folks. The families left appreciating the sense of play, openness and new friendship. Mahalo and gratitude for the healing and rich storytelling work possible, and the listening deeper solidarity requires.

Theatre artists and recent refugee participants of the TeAda Refugee Nation workshop

The rest of the trip is a blur– performing a song in another open mic, seeing 5 different shows of all Asian casts, attending breakout sessions, an action taking over a street to say no to White Supremacy, leading our own TeAda workshop sharing Masters of the Current and CreAtive Self-Care, supporting a post-show discussion for Eleven Reflections on September (remembering the high stakes and profound loss for refugee artists in the process), making new and deepening older ones.  My last night was witnessing all generations of CAATA get down on the dance floor.  Trust, nothing like this has ever happened in Ashland, Oregon before.

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