Blog: Erica Gould

The New York director on why a show about Muslim-American women in post-9/11 America resonates with British audiences

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Drawing from real-life incidents and one-on-one interviews with Pakistani-American women, Dirty Lingerie interweaves the stories of six Muslim–American women, aged six to 65, in post-9/11 America. Through comedy as well as drama, it explores issues of religious and cultural identity, sexuality, politics. While I have felt very strongly about the relevance of the material since I first started working on the piece with [writer and performer] Aizzah Fatima back in 2011, I think this is a particularly important time to be doing the show, given the virulent Islamophobic rhetoric of the Republican presidential primary campaign in the US, and the Syrian refugee crisis and issues of immigration in the UK and Europe.

I think that in America the issues of the hyphenated identity that the play explores can speak deeply to people regardless of religion or cultural background. The commonality of the immigrant journey, unless you are Native American, is an aspect of every American’s identity, whether one’s family has been in the country for five months or five generations. There is an inherent tension between what has been left behind and what we take with us, between the impulse to assimilate and the desire to maintain our identity, between what we hold onto and what we fear we may have forgotten. I have always been struck by the way in which the stories of these Pakistani-American women have deeply resonated with US audience members from radically different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds, men as well as women. And more and more, I think these stories resonate with European and UK audiences as well, as immigration here becomes increasingly more prominent in the cultural and political conversation. I’ve noticed a change in the response we are getting to the piece on this tour that has been really interesting in that regard.

Racism in America has of course been part of our national fabric from the country’s inception, including against Muslims – which Thomas Jefferson actually references and condemns. Donald Trump stokes people’s fears and speaks to their basest impulses, but he is drawing on themes that were already present, though less overtly expressed, on the political right in the US. It seems that these issues are becoming more prominent in your national discourse now as well.

I think the images of Muslim women in the theatre, and media in general, to the extent that they are represented at all, are pretty reductive and it’s important to put complex, three-dimensional Muslim-American female characters on stage, women whose gender, religion, and cultural background certainly inform but do not exclusively define their experience and identity. I think this can be a powerful enterprise, both for people who see their own cultural background explored with honesty and integrity, and for those for whom such stories might seem to be far from themselves. It can be powerful and moving, I think, for audience members from that community to have an opportunity to see their stories told on stage in a way that reflects their actual experiences, rather than limited and distorted stereotypes. And I think it is equally important to share these stories with audience members from other cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds – finding their own experiences reflected in the stories of people they might have otherwise assumed were totally different from them can be a powerful and profound experience.

I guess in some ways, the fact that Aizzah is Muslim and I am Jewish can speak to that in a small way. We are both very interested in interfaith work, and I think that finding common ground across religion and culture can be such a thrilling experience – and an impulse I would like to think can run just as deep as that of tribalism and exclusion. After a performance the other night, I had the most amazing conversation with a group of hijabi women, talking about our respective religious and cultural upbringings, the similarities in our experiences of Yom Kippur and Ramadan, etc.

But none of this can happen if we try to tell the audience what to think. We want to ask questions, not answer them – entertain you and make you laugh.

Dirty Lingerie is on at Cast, Doncaster on Wednesday 6 April. Book tickets on 019302 303 959 or online at The tour continues to the Rainhall Centre/Spot-On in Barnoldswick, Burnley Arts Centre and the Bureau in Blackburn. Photo: Rob Bennett for the Wall Street Journal

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