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Playwrights' Perspectives

Playwright's Perspective: The Profane

By Zayd Dohrn, Playwright

The two families in The Profane are American. They’re also immigrants, as most Americans are or were, somewhere back in the family tree, navigating the difficulties of assimilation, holding onto some of their traditions and altering others, trying to maintain an authentic identity while becoming something new.  

Of course, they have multiple other, sometimes conflicting, identities: New Yorkers, suburbanites, businessmen, bartenders, Mets and Yankees fans. And, like most of us these days, they are isolated from one another, living in enclaves, interacting with like-minded people, sticking to their tribes. 

That both families are Muslim-American might seem to mark them off, to offer them a distinct history and community, or at least a shared experience of otherness in this country. But it is their differences that preoccupy them here, as differences often do, while their similarities are taken for granted, or dismissed as out-of-date.

Tony Kushner writes movingly that “the artist embraces or expresses difference, spends her or his time imagining it with as powerful and graceful empathetic leaps as the limitations of human consciousness permit… This process is difficult and doomed to at least partial failure. But when an audience watches an artist in this process it is exhilarated, because a miracle of sorts is taking place.” 

But it is their differences that preoccupy them here, as differences often do, while their similarities are taken for granted, or dismissed as out-of-date.

This is an idea I love — not just the potential miracle (we could all use one!), but because of the recognition of inevitable failure (failure being such a constant presence in the daily work of any writer). And this failure of empathy has been on my mind a lot lately, as our country seems to have lost the ability to bridge the gaps between people, and as we face a growing wave of nativism and xenophobia all over the world.

That failure is the subject of this play, and the conflict between these two families. It’s easy to criticize others for their narrow-mindedness, more difficult and necessary to acknowledge our own limited perspective. What lives can’t we imagine? What unfamiliar contexts do we fail to understand? Where are the borders of our inclusion, the limits of our own tolerance?

These characters don’t have the answers. They are divided, like all of us, by their difference. By age, class, gender, and religion, by the books that have shaped their belief and imagination, and the past they’ve tried to leave behind. What they do have — what all of us have — is proximity. The distances between us are shrinking. Those alien people are our classmates, co-workers, friends, and family members. We may fail to understand them, but they are already here, in our country, our neighborhoods, and in our homes. We are that close.