Eleven Reflections on September is a thought-provoking ensemble performance shared from the perspective of an Arab-American grappling with the complexities of living in lower-Manhattan in a post-9/11 world. Written, directed and performed by Andrea Assaf, this production gives voice to the fallen creating a meaningful dialogue that confronts stereotypes in each of the thoughtfully selected elements of text, imagery, movement and music.Andrea’s spoken word, accompanied by the breathtaking rhythmic stylings of Eylem Basaldi (violin), Natalia Perlaza (percussion/didjeridu) and Aida Shahghasemi (daf/piano/vocals) along with the captivating movement by Donna Mejia (choreographer/dancer) guides the audience towards an understanding of ourselves and each other, in relation to the world around us. The jarring imagery depicting triumph and struggle, desperation and hope, serves as a backdrop while this ensemble improvises in complement to each other, with fluidity throughout the piece. The use of parody and symbolism, coupled with the deliberate choices of rhythm and voice, Eleven Reflections shows viewers there remains hope to be found, even in the midst of the painful realities of war.FEN Magazine contributor, Rhonda Elhosseiny, had the opportunity to talk with Andrea at Café Mogador in the East Village after attending opening night of Eleven Reflections on September presented in association with lamama.org and Art2Action Inc. This production is also held in conjunction with an intricate installation of reclaimed wood titled, Reflections of NYC, by Alice Mizrachi at Hi-Arts.
STATS Sunrise or Sunset: Sunset Kindle or Paperback: Paperback Place in the world that you haven’t been to yet: I have A LOT! Top three: Brasil, Palestine…Syria - before the war. But, there are so many things that we can’t go back to.
1. In one of the poems you share in this production, you repeatedly pose this question, “Who am I to write this story?” – when and what was the process that lead you to overcome that voice and answer that question?
That actually is the opening line of this woman, this sea, which is a piece that I perform with Aida Shahghasemi (percussionist: daf/pianist/vocalist). On one level, I write because I am compelled to, because it’s the way that I process very emotional or difficult experiences and so at the same time that I might have that question about my position as an American citizen, as someone who’s third generation that hasn’t spent a whole lot of time in the Middle East. At the same time, while I wrestle with that kind of identity and privilege I also have to write for my own sanity and clarity. I’m driven to it.
That whole poem is built on real stories. So there’s the ethical question of “who l am I to tell these stories if they’re not my stories?” and yet, what happens if we don’t tell them? What happens if we remain silent? What do we do with the privilege of having a microphone?
It’s interesting too, that I perform that piece with Aida who is from Iran and certainly has a different lived experience relationship to the Middle East, than I do. And so every time we perform it together I feel like it’s a real question. Not that she could answer it for me, but when we begin that poem I actually look her in the eye and ask that question. And I feel like I am sincerely asking it, every time. The extraordinary thing for me in the experience of performing is that she responds in song, which is just so beautiful.
2. How has your ability to maneuver between the ‘political and the personal’ changed over the life of this work and in parallel to the revolutions, the Arab Spring, and all over the world now?
Definitely, when we are racialized bodies there is no escaping that the personal is political or that the political, what’s happening in the world, in this case the Arab world and the Middle East, is read into and projected onto our bodies and our faces. In so many encounters, every encounter in which we’re seen as Other, we have to negotiate that moment, of proving our individuality in the face of the stereotypes that are hovering around us. So, there’s no escaping it for me, in terms of the writing. The poetry comes from a very, very personal place. But, this particular series related to 9/11 and the years since, that’s very much the experience that drives the writing. The political climate and environment is inescapable. As an individual voice, you try to navigate that.
3. That actually brings me to next question, you’ve mentioned how important it was for you to find an all-female cast for this production, particularly all women of color. Aside from the obvious, wanting to do this, together as women – why was this so important for you especially for this piece?
There’s the simple answer and then there’s the deep and complex answer. The simple answer is that it’s part of the mission of Art2Action, to support artists of color, and women-identified artists as well as queer and trans-identified artists. And because I am interested in cultural equity and I’m interested in lifting the voices that usually get silenced or overlooked. And then there’s the very personal answer to that which is that I love being in all-women spaces, and they’re increasingly rare in the States. The wonderful complexity of issues around Middle Eastern culture, particularly Islam and religion is, gender segregation. It’s complex because yes, it is often used as a form of discrimination or oppression or driven by sexist or patriarchal ideas – that is true. And it is also true that there is something so wonderful about the women’s spaces in the Middle East that I kind of hunger for and miss and wish we had more of here in the States. There is such an openness, depth, a joyfulness, and intimacy and sometimes eroticism to those spaces that is really, so wonderful. And I certainly don’t think that Americans have any concept of that, or know how to talk about it or read it or understand it and also, just don’t even know it exists they just have this one-dimensional idea that hijab equals oppression or segregation equals oppression. And in fact, I sometimes find that women-only spaces in the Middle East to be incredibly liberating, around touch and expression and dance and song.
4. The element of improvisation is very powerful and very strong throughout the work. Tell me about some of the ways that you worked with your ensemble to build the trust necessary to do the improvisation where they feel safe enough doing this on the stage.
It’s like you can’t invite a jazz artist and tell them to set everything, you just can’t – it’s antithetical to the form. Structured improvisation is the form. There’s so much about Middle Eastern music that also has that deep value of structured improvisation. There are pieces in the work that are set, that are actual songs and we’re actually counting measures. Then there’s other places where the artists had a lot of free range to create, like the Tahrir Square section. I’m very much the director of the whole, and have the final decision on what works and what doesn’t but there’s just so much space for them to create and contribute that hopefully, it makes it a rewarding experience for everybody, artistically.
5. It’s been said that the original creative act was spoken word, preceding visibility, imagery. This work has now evolved into this really satisfying gumbo of spoken word, music dance, movement, improvisation, digital media. Where do you see the work going next?
I don’t know. The crazy thing is so much depends on what happens in New York sometimes, in the theatre community. It has toured previously in various forms. I hope that can continue. I can do a solo version with the media although it’s not nearly as gratifying as working with the live music. We hope that we will be able to tour the full ensemble to other places around the country, because in general there’s a very different conversation in New York, I think New Yorkers are more comfortable talking about aesthetics whereas in other parts of the country, my experience has been people go straight to the content and they talk about the war and other things that the content brings up for them. It’s funny to me that it’s a little harder to get New Yorkers to go there. They stay in that safer conversation space about artistic process. But I like taking it to other parts of the US where nobody’s really engaging in these conversations. I also really want to take it to Lebanon. There are folks there that have expressed an interest in it and we just haven’t gotten the funding for it but I am so curious to see what the response to this work would be in the Middle East.
6. Any advice for aspiring Arab-American artists?
Speak your truth. If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will. In any form – writing, acting, dance, find what you want to say most deeply in your core and everything else and the how will follow… Find your allies, people that genuinely support your work and not play into the stereotypes. We need to stop participating in our own oppression. That’s the key with writing. Life in the arts is a challenge to sustain. You must have something to say and you have to really mean it.
First Floor Theatre 74a East 4th Street New York, NY 10003 April 30 – May17, 2015
304 East 100th Street New York, NY 10018 April 23 – May 22, 2015, Mondays & Friday 2-5pm