Menu

Essay

From the Artistic Director: The Profane

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

The action in The Profane starts when the daughter of super-urbane and secular Arab-American writer, Raif, announces her engagement to the son of traditional, working-class Arab-American parents. Plays about lovers from divergent backgrounds abound in the history of the theater. We all love a happy ending. But most often, when playwrights introduce marriages into their plays, they are looking for trouble. Characters may declaim their love, but they are also defining themselves in relation to their family, their class, their country, their religion, their history. In life, marriages often serve as an affirmation of the countless markers of self-identification that have influenced us. But in plays, marriages most often serve to ignite our differences. In Romeo and Juliet, the extremity of the enmity between Montague and Capulet is equaled by the vehemence of our eponymous teenagers’ ardor. There is almost no reason for the barrier. Pure hate meets pure love. In other plays, we discern the social contexts within which marriages define themselves, like the traditions of Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof or the class stratification that informs Congreve’s The Way of the World or Shaw’s Misalliance. As an immigrant country, America’s plays often feature marriages to dramatize opposing impulses to preserve cultures or to assimilate. We find this motif in one of America’s first hit plays, Anne Nichols’ Abie’s Irish Rose, and last year’s hit, Danai Gurira’s Familiar

When playwrights introduce marriages into their plays, they are looking for trouble.

In Zayd’s eloquent contribution to this bulletin, he speaks of the differences dividing Americans and the two families in his play. All of the differences Zayd mentions — age, class, gender, religion, and experience — are present here. Most of these differences were also part of Danai’s play last season. In both plays, the bride is drawn to explore the heritage that her parents have rejected. But there are also significant differences between them. Danai titles her play Familiar, encouraging us to see the universality of the immigrant experience. The title of The Profane is more explosive. Even though the circumstances of the play are just as universal to all Americans as those in Danai’s, the fact that both of Zayd’s families are Muslim-American cannot help but conjure the injurious debate about the role of Muslim-Americans in our country today. But the voices of dominant white culture (and the current ruling party) are not present in the play. We hear only the views of the Muslim-American characters. But those dominant white culture voices are still present; they are in our heads. And not just on this subject. 

Insofar as plays about marriage pit an equal tension between idealism and conflict, they also pitch their stories right down the line between comedy and drama. Even Romeo and Juliet plays as a comedy until partway through the third act. Similarly, the trajectory of Familiar plays as a breezy comedy until Aunt Annie spills the beans that Tendi is not who she thinks she is. In Fiddler on the Roof the transformation into drama occurs at the wedding itself, when Cossacks disrupt Tzeitl and Motel’s reception. 

I won’t tell you whether The Profane falls on either side of that line. I daresay it might depend on which character you identify with. If you identify with Raif — and it’s probably a safe bet that most of the progressive secularists in the audience will — the outcomes will fill you with conflict. Raif is the play’s most eloquent critic of the scourge of orthodoxy. Superstition and clannishness separate us and villainize the other. But much like last year’s The Christians, The Profane has a way of opening up a window into the hearts of the other side. We begin to see that prejudicial orthodoxies rule the hearts of both sides. These insights may not steer the play into a happy ending, but I think it brings understanding, a virtue that is in short supply and especially welcome these days.