ALBANY - Over the past several weeks the nation and the world have been having intense discussions on the topic of “systemic racism”; or put another way, “systemic oppression”.
The theater community has expressed remorse and promises to do better about producing stories of how minority cultures have been affected by discrimination in the criminal justice system, employment, housing, health care, education and perhaps most importantly, political power.
To the credit of Capital Repertory Theater in Albany, this is not a new issue to find its way to their stage. For example, this week the company is presenting its 9th Annual Next Act! New Play Summit. It will be available July 13-16, free of charge on line.
The main event with be the 7 p.m. Wednesday reading of the winning play, “A Distinct Society.” It was written by Kareem Fahmy.
It is important to note that the process of selecting a play from over 350 entries takes 6-8 months from start to finish. This means, “A Distinct Society,” a play about the societal repression of minorities, is an issue that Capital Rep has been aware of long before the recent protests and marches.
The play centers on Middle Eastern Muslims. It is a cultural group that has long felt dislocated in American culture because of their religion, dress and skin color. After 9/11 Middle Easterners became demonized due to their suspected political support of terrorist networks.
Their demonization came to a climax by what is known as the “Muslim Ban,” which prevented Muslims from visiting families in the United States. In 2017, President Trump by Executive Order, banned travel from several Muslim countries. Any law that can keep families apart because of race, skin color or religion, is essentially defined as “systemic oppression.”
However, on the international border between Stamstead, Quebec and Derby Line, Vermont, there exists the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. Situated on the border between two countries it was an anomaly that technically was not affected by the ban. It permitted Muslims from Canada to visit American relatives at the site.
“A Distinct Society” is a fictional work based on a very real situation. Playwright Fahmy invented a situation about a family meeting regularly and evading the ban. It causes a crisis between the librarian permitting the meetings and border authorities who are trying to close the loophole to prevent the humanitarian visits. It is a human story that shows how laws can be manipulated for the purpose of systemic oppression.
Oddly, Fahmy, who was born and raised in Canada by his Egyptian parents knew nothing of the library until he read an article about the dispute. “I must have gone over that bridge hundreds of times never knowing about its existence,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Fahmy did, however, know about discrimination. Oddly, the discrimination he felt in Canada has nothing to do with religion or skin tone. It was in Quebec, during the 90s, when French-speaking Quebec wanted to secede from Canada. His English-speaking family were scorned upon. “I, like my mother, was fluent in French, but because we were English-speaking, I was discriminated against at school and my family suffered in social situations.”
In 2013, Fahmy moved to New York City to pursue his flourishing career as a theater director. “It was the first time in my life I ever felt discrimination because of skin color or religion.“ Shortly after 9/11, his Middle East origin intensified his feelings of dislocation.
He says the cultural discrimination he had to deal with changed his life. He began to see his purpose as a theater person as one who needed to direct and write plays that told the stories of Middle Easterners.
The reading of “A Distinct Society” is directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, who also directed “The Royale” and “Lobby Hero” at Capital Rep. Her heritage is Armenian, another Middle Eastern culture that has been painfully treated throughout the past century.
She and Fahmy founded a consulting group of supporting artists and organizations to engage with stories from the Middle East, North Africa and South Asian regions.
Fahmy describes his goal for any play he writes “to encourage the audience to take a breath and have deeper conversations about divisive issues.” Immigration is certainly one of those issues.
Director Sandberg-Zakin has equally strong feelings about theater helping to bring about social change. She points to how Fahmy includes three races with only five characters in “A Distinct Society.” “The play shows it’s not race that’s the problem. It’s the system that is the problem. An audience should leave the theater knowing they can help change a harmful system.”
It promises to be an exciting and timely reading. However, the New Play Festival has more to it than the reading of the winning play.
On Monday, July 13 at 7 p.m. The top six plays of youngsters aged 13-18 will be read.
7 p.m. Tuesday The winning entry from the 19-25 years of age category is read. The play, “Slam,” is about getting into a poetry competition. It was written by UAlbany sophomore William Feerick, in rhyming verse with hip hop rhythms.
7 p.m. Wednesday is the reading of “A Distinct B Society.’
7 p.m. Thursday is the final evening. It’s a fun night when the first 15-pages of the runner-up plays are read. It is intriguing to wonder when and if they will be produced.
To see the events, which run Monday to Thursday, go to the Facebook page of Capital Rep or Proctors Collaborative at Youtube.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.