University of Iowa theater project spotlights the Muslim experience in Iowa

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While Hancher’s Embracing Complexity initiative is bringing artists with Islamic cultural ties to Iowa City, nine University of Iowa students are fanning out across the state to gather the stories of Muslims living in Iowa.

Enrolled in an independent study program through the UI theater department, they are spending the fall interviewing 30 to 50 Muslims of varying ages in urban and rural areas, from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids to Des Moines, Elkader and beyond. From those interviews will emerge a documentary theater piece that’s a collage of the Muslim experience in Iowa, built around their “unique and rich personal stories,” said UI theater professor and project leader Anne Marie Nest.

Students will help with transcribing the interviews and constructing the play. Nest and her assistant will finish the process, workshopping the script over the winter and staging a public reading April 10 at Hancher.

It’s a project born out of heartache.

“I was in New York for 9/11, and it had a deep impact on me,” Nest said. “It was so hard to watch my Muslim friends and neighbors become the enemy instantly, and that experience never left me. (With) the political climate today, it just feels like I had to help in any way that I could.”

With Embracing Complexity, she found the niche she needed.

“It was the right time,” she said, and Hancher embraced her project.

She began conducting interviews in May. Some of the participating students who were around in the summer were willing to dive right in, as well. Their roles technically ends with the semester, but if they wish to be involved as the play develops, Nest won’t say no.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches,” she said of her students. “They’re all very smart, motivated, sensitive artists, so I feel very fortunate to be working with them.”

She’s also hoping to connect with student organizations on campus, including the various Middle Eastern and South Asian student associations, for interviews and involvement.

“The tricky part about the project is also the beauty of the project, which is the diversity of Muslim population here in Iowa is wide,” Nest said. “I can’t believe how many different cultures are represented in the Muslim community here in Iowa. We may not be able to represent every single group, but I’d like to get as diverse a group as possible.”

While the interviews are being transcribed verbatim, they will be put into a dramatic arc to create a play. Even though not all the interviews will be used, the dialogue spoken by the actors will be actual words culled from the interviews.

“We will make sure everyone is anonymous,” Nest said. “We’ll make it so identities can’t really be known too much, especially for those people who have made it clear that ‘no one can know that I’m the one who said that.’”

Other characters in the play will come from creatively writing around interviews, she added, but preserving their voices.

“Because I’m interviewing outside of a community that is my own, I feel a real responsibility to use the words of the people in the community and try to share their stories as they intended them to be shared, with the same intention behind them.”

One surprising development is a recurring theme of feminism and how that relates to Islam, she said.

Nest hopes to not only give Muslims in Iowa a wider voice, she also hopes her students will see and appreciate the power of documentary.

“It’s a great way to create work that’s socially and politically important and moving,” she said. “So many stories need to be told.”

That’s especially true of the Muslim community right now.

“Talking with people in the community, they’re very aware of a certain narrative that’s being told by the popular media,” she said. “The more that we can get a more nuanced view and a more true representation of who Muslims are in our country and what their hopes and dreams and fears and stories are, the better.

“I think it’s important to combat a sort of narrow view and one that’s predicated more in fear, and get a more honest idea of who our neighbors are.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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