The great African playwright Wole Soyinka once stated “What politics demonizes, culture humanizes.” Foreign policy discussions usually focus on governments, with the citizens of various societies being reduced to monolithic actors. The arts, in contrast, focus on what connects human beings, no matter where they come from. Theater, music and dance are part of what makes us human and this shared experience makes us realize that human desires, fears, and goals are often very similar, despite social, historical and geographic differences.
The ability of art to humanize the “other” was a major theme at the launch of “Myriad Voices”, a project of Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics. Founded by Ambassador Cynthia Schneider of the School of Foreign Service and Professor Derek Goldman from the Theater and Performance Studies Program, the lab seeks to develop new interdisciplinary approaches to fostering cross-cultural dialogue and understanding, and to advancing peace and social justice through performance. Specifically, “Myriad Voices” aims to create connections between the United States and Muslim-majority societies, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Through presenting the work of artists from these countries, the project aims to encourage the audience to question the prevailing stereotypes that they may have about these often-misunderstood societies.
One of the core artists involved in the festival is Shahid Nadeem, Pakistan’s leading playwright and the co-founder, along with his wife, director Madeeha Gauhar, of Ajoka Theatre. Founded in 1983 during the period of General Zia ul Haq’s military rule, Ajoka has been producing plays focused on human rights, the plight of women, and the increasing Islamization of Pakistani society. Ajoka’s plays often use examples from South Asian history to comment on contemporary trends. For example, Dara focuses on the confrontation between two Mughal princes, Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb. A poet, painter and Sufi, Dara wanted to bring the ruling Muslim elite closer to local religions and advocated for a pluralistic society. He was imprisoned and executed by his younger brother, Aurangzeb, whose focus was on amassing power while enforcing a rigid political and religious hierarchy. In South Asian history, Dara and Aurangzeb represent two different archetypes of political/religious ideology and practice. In Pakistan,the struggle between these two forms continues to this day.
Though Ajoka’s plays often deal with taboo subjects, they utilize music and humor to keep the audience engaged. During his presentation, Nadeem stated that his goal is to make the audience laugh and cry at the same time. When they are viewing the play, they laugh to see the absurdities of their society depicted on stage. Later, when they reflect on the experience, they are saddened by the contradictions of their society. Through this mix of serious issues and comedy, Ajoka hopes to start a debate about the many challenges facing Pakistani society.
As part of “Myriad Voices”, Ajoka will bring one of their latest plays, Amerika Chalo (Destination USA) to Georgetown in January 2015. Set in an American consulate in Pakistan, the play is a hilarious send-up of U.S.-Pakistani relations that explodes stereotypes through satire. The workshop production will feature members of Ajoka’s troupe as well as guest artists from the U.S.
“Myriad Voices” is an important effort to use the performing arts to promote greater understanding between the US and Muslim-majority countries. It will be exciting to see the future directions taken by this collaboration.