The Profane Artist Interview
Note: This interview contains spoilers about the contents of The Profane.
Tim Sanford: Generally we do these interviews both as a way into the play and as a way into the writer. We’ve been reading your plays for a while and have done several readings — The Profane was the third. There’s a running theme in your work of people who are exiled or social outliers. We might go on to talk about a few of your plays as examples of that. But this is also an opportunity for you to talk about your background and how it may have influenced your work and to frame the question the way you want.
Zayd Dohrn: I guess the first thing I would say is when I became a writer, I never thought about the connection to family or how I grew up. It just never occurred to me. My plays came out of something I found interesting, some inspiration that seemed valuable to me. One thing that has surprised me in my life as a writer is, I can have an idea that I think would make a great play, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a play I can write. So I usually just write the plays that I think I can write. And I never thought about whether my strange childhood was part of my being a writer, until press started asking me. [Zayd’s parents, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers founded The Weather Underground.] Then I had to sit back and think, “Is there something in my biography that motivates the kinds of plays I write?” And I guess I would say two things. One is that my parents set a real example in terms of writing worlds that aren’t my world, or trying to identify with people who are not me. My parents always felt like their position of privilege made it a responsibility to fight on the side of marginalized people. And I never consciously thought of my writing as part of that fight, but I guess it’s deeply ingrained in me to write for a reason, and to think about what my position allows me to do. And that it would irresponsible to write plays that do not engage the kind of politics of the day. And I would say also just from a personal point of view, growing up on the run and under assumed names and watching what my parents went through and what my family went through, gave me a real interest in what it looks like when people try to make a change in the world. Both in its idealism and also its disappointments.
How old were you when you stopped being on the lam?
My parents turned themselves in when I was about five. And then my mom went to jail for almost two years. So it wasn’t until I was nine or ten that we started normalizing a little bit. When I was 12 we moved to Chicago, and my dad became a professor and my mom became a lawyer and we had a normal-ish life. But really my entire childhood was abnormal. First, many years of living under fake names and fake addresses, and then several years of trying to cope with my family being in a mess, because my mom was gone and my dad was trying to raise us — me and my brother and my adopted brother — by himself, and then ultimately with a good friend, a generous single gay man who worked with him in a daycare center, who moved in with us and helped raise us for those years.
Being in the theater does require being in a community. And it’s pretty interesting that, coming from a non-artistic, sort of aggressively social-minded family, that you were drawn to the theater. It seems like whatever communities you belonged to were temporary — ephemeral, right?
Yeah. It’s funny, my little brother is an activist; he’s a lawyer, an activist, a social justice crusader, and a great guy. He’s my adopted brother, but ironically he’s the son my parents were meant to have. He’s entirely focused on doing the right thing, changing the world, being in the trenches. And I guess for me, I always felt ambivalent about the activist impulse; I’m entirely supportive of social justice movements, but for me personally, I grew up watching both the toll it takes on family and also I was always just suspicious of that kind of moral clarity. So I think in my plays, I’m still interested in the activist impulse, not always overt political activism, but it’s often an impulse to take the world and shape it according to some kind of intellectual or political or religious or spiritual ideal, and to show how complicated that impulse is, and how hard it is to change things for the better, and how there are unintended consequences.
You said recently that your work springs from a mixture of political and personal impulses. Give me an example of an earlier play where you realized this.
My first play that I wrote after graduate school, Sick, I wrote when I was a young parent. And I had a lot of friends who, like me, were struggling with how do you protect your child from the scariness of the world? Something as simple and intimate as the first time I walked my daughter outside when we left the hospital. The noise and pollution was overwhelming; it felt too horrible to put this tiny thing into a cab and take her home, but the subway seemed impossible too. So we walked her from 59 Street at the hospital up to the Upper West Side, where we were living at the time. And I remember thinking, “Here we are in New York City, which I’ve always felt full of life and excitement,” but being a parent suddenly I saw this other side of it. It seemed dangerous. And meanwhile I was thinking about the whole debate over the 9/11 dust in downtown, so to go to your question about the collision of the political and personal, it was that experience of having a baby and feeling so vulnerable all of a sudden. And meanwhile thinking about environmental collapse all over the world. That summer we went to China and we were staying in Beijing with our baby, and it was shortly after the SARS epidemic, and everybody had a surgical mask, everybody. And it just felt like the world was falling apart, but here we had just brought this baby into the world.
That play was produced, right?
It was produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, and then it was done in Dallas, and San Francisco, and New Orleans, and...
Was it an NNPN show?
Yeah it was a National New Play Network thing.
Did people get the metaphorical social connection?
I think they perceived part of it. It’s a play about a mother, a family that basically ends up retreating from the world and closing themselves off. Basically — they don’t leave their brownstone. They’re in lower Manhattan, in the middle of the chaos of the world, but they don’t leave. They’re hermits and they’re in their little bubble.
What was your next play that had a production after Sick?
After Sick... Reborning, and then Magic Forest Farm. And then Outside People. Magic Forest Farm was done at Marin Theatre Company. Reborning was done at The Public as part of the Summer Play Festival, and then was done at San Francisco Playhouse. That’s probably my most-produced play, it’s been done twenty-some times and they do it at colleges a lot.
Remind me what it’s about.
I wrote Reborning around the same time that I wrote Sick, it’s also about being a parent, but it’s about this very strange subculture, “reborning artists,” who basically — this is a real thing — sculpt these dolls into utterly lifelike, real-looking babies. And people buy them sometimes to replace lost children who have died. They buy these objects as totems and put them in their house. And as a young parent, I found it both terrifying and kind of beautiful in a weird way. And it’s also, like everything I write, a play about people who are trying to find a better way to live, to create a better world. In Reborning, this young artist is abused and abandoned by her parents when she’s a baby, and she uses these dolls to imagine a reality without that abuse and abandonment, to use her art to construct a new reality... And then one of her customers comes and asks her to make a doll for a child that she’s lost, and the artist becomes convinced that it’s her, that this customer is actually her long-lost mother.
In the last couple of years we’ve done a couple of readings of plays that I’ve really liked.
Want and Bedlam.
Want was the one set in Berkeley that was, like, holdovers from the 60s, right?
Yeah. It’s set in a flophouse in California that’s been turned into kind of a commune.
And there’s a sort of womanizing guru at the center of it.
And it’s kind of how idealism goes to shit.
It is indeed that, yeah. I grew up partly on a commune, and so... It’s funny you said earlier about different communities I grew up in; I hadn’t thought of it exactly that way, but it’s true that my childhood — I never had like a normal American nuclear family. We moved around a lot and we lived with the black nationalist movement, we lived with a hippie commune in California, we lived in Harlem — my dad was a worker on the shipyards, so we lived in a kind of union community for a while. So there were all these different things happening, and... Want is about these ex-hippie types whose appetites — their desires for drugs, sex, food, whatever — overwhelm them and they end up joining this commune as a retreat from that.
I grew up in the 60s, and saw how its idealism crumbled. Like the notion of free love devolved over just 10 years or so into the disco culture with its club hopping and vapid pickup lines.
I see what you’re saying, you’re saying the collapse of one thing into another thing. You’re exactly right. I’ll tell you one other funny thing, like you said earlier — we were talking about the activist parents and their artist children. One thing that I’ve been surprised to find is that... Of course I know all the people who are the children of the activists of that era, not only my parents and their friends, but we have a kind of a weird social network of our own, the children of the 60s. And a shocking number of them are writers, documentarians, actors, filmmakers, painters. And I take that to mean that the impulse to make sense of it all and to create something out of it is powerful, and partly it’s the kind of drama of what you’re talking about. Many of my friends who grew up on the commune with me, their childhoods were — I mean mine was weird, but some of theirs were really disastrous, you know? They were never parented because their parents were chasing whatever it was: fulfillment, nirvana… They were looking for spiritual awakening, and their kids were like practically feral. And a lot of them became artists I think partly to make sense of that.
The last play we did a reading of, Bedlam, in a way is like the flipside of Sick.
It’s about this kid who is so... I mean he’s on the spectrum probably.
And he befriends this homeless kid and basically invites...
...him to live with him, yeah.
And he invites chaos and trouble in when he does it. He’s so naive about the world that he’s not protective enough.
And it’s such a kind of nerve-wracking and compelling story. And then the next play we did a reading of was The Profane. Right away, it clicked; it felt so timely and brave. What were the early seeds of this play for you? How did it come out of your experience?
There were a lot of things happening all at the same time. There were the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, and then the reaction of the literary community to those shootings. And it seemed to me as though half the writers I admired were championing, “Je suis Charlie” and “free speech is the most important value,” and the other half of the writers I admired were saying Charlie Hebdo was blaspheming a people who were already vulnerable in Europe and were already being discriminated against — not that the violence was justified, of course, but that there was this real complicated debate about the compatibility or lack thereof of liberal Western tolerance and religious expression, and how could those two things live together. And meanwhile in America we had that pastor in Florida burning the Quran and we had the debate over the 9/11 mosque and whether we could even have a mosque in lower Manhattan, which just seemed insane to me. So those things were happening in the world, and then in my own family and circle of very close friends, I started seeing these stories of families grappling with those same issues, that issue of people who believe themselves to be very tolerant and liberal suddenly find somebody in their own family express beliefs that seem incompatible with tolerance. And because the world was on fire and continues to be more and more dangerous around these issues, these small family questions got blown up into really painful and difficult moments in a lot of cases. So that was the seed of the play: “What does it look like when one family has this big global conflict happening inside it between a father and a daughter?”
You talked about the network of children of activists and how some of them were, like, raised by wolves, and in a way there’s an aspect of the Almedin family that’s so insular. I mean, he prides himself on not being insular, on being so worldly and his daughter calls him on it. And that’s an aspect I really responded to as a theater-maker in New York. I’m very aware that our audience tends to be progressive and you don’t want to do work in an echo chamber when so much of our trouble — I mean, no one’s listening to each other.
When I was writing the play I kept thinking about how cosmopolitanism itself can be an insular ideology, even though every cosmopolitan person including myself would say, “Well the whole point is we are worldly, we accept all nationalities, all religions, all points of view,” except that very idea actually excludes a lot of people: people who don’t believe in cosmopolitan values.
Talk about the choice to write about a family of Muslim heritage.
I wrote it as a one-act at first. The family that I’d always imagined was incredibly cosmopolitan, incredibly liberal, incredibly westernized. And this was happening in my family on some level; they’re people who, even in their most intimate relationships, have both sides exist. So yeah, I’d always imagined them as a family that came from a background of traditional Islam, and yet had totally distanced themselves from that. As you said, there’s an insularity to that. They think of themselves as residents of the West — like Salman Rushdie or Edward Said, people who come from exile but embrace fully the idea of cosmopolitanism. So that was always the idea, and then when I thought, “This other family should also be shown onstage.” Suddenly I had a play about two families of that heritage, but that wasn’t exactly how I’d conceived it, I had always thought, “I’ll write a family I know.”
So the decision to write the second act about the other family sprang from that?
Yeah. I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to tackle this play if I had seen that it was going to get as ambitious. I guess I initially thought, “I’ll write a one-act about this family,” and they talked about the other family a lot, but we never saw them. And then once I realized that was inadequate, getting to see them in act two felt very organic to the structure of a play. And I wanted to see that house. I wanted to see what it looked like, and how they spoke, and how they dressed. So I wrote into that curiosity.
Did you, at any point in writing it, think, “I’m a white guy... how is this community even going to respond to this play?”
Yeah, I thought about it the whole time, except it was already sort of too late. I wrote the first half of the play in a kind of moment of inspiration, I mean it only took about two weeks. And then I thought, “Oh I’ve gotten myself into something,” both because I knew I needed a second act and I didn’t quite know how to write it. And I thought, “Am I the right person to write this?” And I spoke to people in my family who are from that background, and friends, and colleagues in the theater world from Middle Eastern backgrounds to decide, “Is this something I can write about?” I mean there are already great writers from those backgrounds writing plays. I didn’t want to compete with them or write something that seemed like I was trying to appropriate what they’re doing. But it’s funny, I think we spoke about this with Aasif Mandvi at the Guggenheim Works & Process event: for me, I guess what I ended up coming to — and it was with the help of people who I was talking to about this — is there’s something about the outsider perspective that might be useful. And I always knew I wanted actors from this background to be onstage, to help me think through the issues, and that’s been kind of a long process starting with the very first readings, the reading here and the reading at New York Stage & Film, and at Chautauqua, I wanted to get the insider voices eventually, but I also felt like maybe I can say something about this. The critique of the play is ultimately a critique of liberalism, of a Western sort of smug sense of like, “tolerance has been achieved and we are now absolved of the task of understanding people.” It’s easy to say, “It’s fine with me if anybody does whatever they want to do.” But that’s not the same as actually having to grapple with somebody else’s beliefs. So this is a long way of saying that I thought the thing I could offer was not an insider look at Islam, but a look at how the West, and how liberalism, and how a certain intellectual cosmopolitan viewpoint looks at religion from the outside.
One of the most striking, topically resonant moments in the play is when Raif starts ranting about enclaves and ISIS and his daughter says, “Do you know who you sound like?” I think it shows how the views of the ruling class filter down into people’s perspective.
Yeah. It’s one of the real ironies of our historical moment that there’s a certain leftist, secular, atheist, academic perspective that has been appropriated by the right because the issue of Islam cleaves in a very strange way across these divides. People like Salman Rushdie, like Christopher Hitchens, like Hirsi Ali, who are leftists, who in many cases are people of exile, who are proud Humanist liberals, and are therefore against fundamentalist religion, in many cases for very intimate reasons, I mean Hirsi Ali, Salman Rushdie come from those backgrounds, but they have rejected religion as a way of framing the world. And I respect that in them, and yet their ideology gets co-opted by an anti-Islamic right wing in America who ends up putting Hirsi Ali on stage to say, “Islam is barbaric.” And that’s a strange and complicated dynamic where what feels like a leftist critique of religion becomes a right-wing critique of the other. And I think that’s dangerous, and that’s kind of what the play ends up being about. I have some sympathy for Raif’s resistance to fundamentalist religion, but it can easily tip over into demonization of a marginalized and vulnerable people.
A play that has some similarities that has been widely produced is—
Disgraced. It also features a kind of super-secularized, very urbane Middle-Eastern American of Muslim heritage who’s married to a white woman, and what happens in that play is his world falls apart. But it’s kind of the opposite of what happens with Raif in that it feels like he falls into the sort of traditional masculine stereotype of Islam and strikes his wife and all of that.
Yeah, so a couple things about that. First of all, it’s funny, I hadn’t read Disgraced when I started working on this play, but I did ultimately get to read it, and I’m friendly with Ayad and respect his work. And I think what’s interesting — it gets back to the question of “Why me writing this play?” — what Ayad did that I found very brave and compelling is offer an analysis from the inside of what is going on in the interior life of people in his community. And it’s a very controversial and scary thing for him to say that there is this — whatever you want to call it — violence lurking there. And that’s not something I could say as an outsider to that community. And I think you’re right that this play is a mirror image of that. It doesn’t attempt to be a play about what religious Muslims are thinking in their hearts of hearts, it really is a play about what the Westerner is thinking about Islam, and how scary that can be, too.
Does the title, The Profane, cut in different ways?
I hope so. First obviously there are two meanings to the word. There’s “the profane” in terms of something blasphemous, or profanity, language that is ungodly. But there’s also the more old-fashioned use of the word, as in “the sacred and the profane,” that there are two kinds of literature, two kinds of thought, two kinds of expression—
I think I read that book—
The Sacred and the Profane?
It’s on my bookshelf: by Mircea Eliade.
In the medieval period, people talked about the sacred and the profane as the two kinds of human endeavor, right? In the old days, the word “profane” was not a bad word; it just referred to things that are not sacred. So a lot of art that is not sacred is by definition profane. So every novel and every poem and every play — or most of them — are profane by that definition. So I got interested in the idea that Raif has his own faith, and his faith is a faith in the profane, his faith is a faith in art and humanistic endeavor and literature and the ways that human beings express themselves that are not about God. And that kind of faith can also tilt into a kind of fundamentalism; if your entire ideology is anti-religious, then it ends up not being as tolerant as you think. It ends up being you’re profaning the majority of the world.
In the play, the climactic action of the play is an act of profanation to deface the holy scripture.
On a literal level, the title refers to that, but there’s an irony in that he ostensibly, as a humanist, puts the written word first. So it’s ironic that he’s attacking the written word as not being the right written word, you know? Do you think he sees this?
I think he sees it on some level, and I think it’s part of the crisis he’s going through. This character has built his entire life around a secular kind of faith — a faith in liberal humanism, in literature, in art. And I think the split with his daughter makes him question that faith, since it wasn’t enough for her — she went looking for something else. But of course it is ironic that he, as a champion of speech, of expression, of literature, would end up attacking a book. And that irony, in this character and in the world at large, was on my mind as I was working on the play.
You talked earlier about your care not to appropriate the stories of writers of different backgrounds. There’s a heated debate about this issue at present. Adam [Greenfield, Associate Artistic Director] circulated a speech given by Lionel Shriver and some of the reactions it elicited. What is your perspective on this debate?
It’s a tricky thing to talk about. My perspective is complicated. I think that it’s a real concern for marginalized people that other people would take their stories and their culture and somehow commodify it or appropriate it into the dominant discourse of this country and the world. I think it’s a complicated issue also because I think most people would agree that artists of all colors should try to get outside their own experience and their own demographics, and that people should make empathetic leaps toward understanding other people. For myself, I try to be careful about the fact — I don’t pretend to speak for anybody other than myself, and I hope not to compete with people who are telling their own important stories. I also think, though, I wouldn’t want to be a writer who only writes about white people, or about men, or about straight people. I don’t want to write to the most narrow version of my experience. So I think for an artist, it’s a balance of striving for understanding and striving for the universal, but also being humble enough to know that you’re not allowed to tell the whole story of any other people, and that there have been voices that have been historically marginalized, and you need to work toward championing those voices as well. As far as the Lionel Shriver thing, there was an op-ed in the Times by Kaitlyn Greenidge that said, the problem with Lionel Shriver and that kind of attitude is not wanting to write outside your experience, the problem is a kind of unwillingness to be criticized for it. Right?
And I find that compelling. I feel like people have every right to come to the play and say, “You didn’t get my experience,” or whatever. And hopefully other people will say, “That is my experience,” or “You’ve touched on something interesting.” But I also think it’s incumbent upon us as writers, all writers but certainly white writers, to not make other cultures invisible in our work. You have to look around to see that there are other people in the world, and those people are important parts of your story also, but also not to think that I’m telling the whole story. If it were just this play and just me, that would be a disaster. Luckily, I’m just one voice among many.
Have you had any critical feedback along the way?
(Laughs.) Yes. I think mostly it’s been very positive. I have had some people of Middle Eastern backgrounds who have read the play, they’ve given me useful feedback and said, “This part wasn’t my experience” or “There were pieces of it that seemed wrong to me,” and in some cases I’ve made changes in response. But a lot of it has been, “This is one true part of this experience,” you know? It’s interesting because of course I know many writers of color, writers from marginalized communities feel the burden of having to kind of speak for their entire community. And I don’t exactly have that burden, but I appreciate the feedback that says something like, “Well this isn’t everything about this experience, but I see it is one side of that.” And in terms of critical feedback, there have been people who have said that there were things in the play that felt too hard to take, too much to watch. Nobody has said yet, and I hope they don’t, that this feels false, or that it’s not an honest perspective on something real that’s happening in the world today.
We had some anxiety going in that the climax of the play, the defacement of the Quran, is such a potentially provocative and difficult act for someone of Muslim heritage to experience. What have you learned about how this moment works in performance?
There have been multiple reactions that are complicated to reconcile. I think for some people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, it’s difficult to watch that moment. For other people — I was very interested by the response of the imam and his wife that came to a preview. And she said that actually that moment was a lot easier for her to watch than the violence in Disgraced, and the reason was because the violence in Disgraced made her feel that everybody was looking at her like, “Oh, that’s how those people are.” And she said the violence in this play made her feel the opposite, it made her feel like everybody in the audience saw the violence that was being done to them. And that there was something affirming in that, that the shock of the audience was the shock of being confronted with what it looks like to degrade somebody else’s beliefs. And that was kind of the intention. I guess for me, what that moment is about is it’s about confronting — showing in a visceral and shocking way what prejudice looks like, what Islamophobia looks like, the real violence that is done to a community when you trivialize or degrade their beliefs.
The discovery that triggers the climax comes when Naja walks in and discovers Dania on the stairs who scurries back upstairs without explanation. The play parcels out bits of information about who she is but does not fully explain why Naja and Raif have such a huge reaction to her. Nor do we fully understand why Dania is so nervous about meeting them, and I guess about her place in the household. Can you talk about what your considerations were about how much to tell and how much to be left to us to deduce on our own?
I think one of the most interesting things about seeing a play — any play, really, but certainly a play about an unfamiliar culture — is that you don’t always understand things the way the characters in the play understand them. These characters might come to different conclusions than you, they might assume things you don’t, have prejudices you don’t, because they have a different background, a different experience or way of seeing the world. But part of the challenge and the reward of being an audience member in a play is that you get to inhabit this other, unfamiliar space. It’s not always a comfortable feeling. But it’s that not-quite-understanding that is actually an important step on the way to empathy.
You talked about the challenges of the second act of depicting the lives of Bassam’s family. Was it also a challenge to represent Emina’s journey into faith?
One of the things writers say all the time, and it’s, I guess, a cliché, but it’s true that it’s best to write things where you have an authentic curiosity about something, where you’re like trying to figure something out or solve a problem or resolve a debate in your own mind rather than like write from a point of view of certainty. So the fun thing about writing the second act was writing into a space that I knew I was interested in, but I didn’t know enough to know where I wanted to come down in the end, of what I thought the resolution could possibly be. And that required a lot of — well research, sure, but also just thinking about what do I really think about religion? And of course all characters in the play have some part of me in them, but Raif was easy to write as another writer, a person who is cosmopolitan and secular. Those were ideas that came sort of naturally to me. But to write myself into the perspective of people who had a deep belief or who were just discovering a belief, I feel like it allowed me to do what I hope the play does, which is make a connection between my experience and an experience that is foreign to mine. In the play certain characters talk about religion being for some people what art is for other people, or what literature is for other people, and clearly human beings get their moral, political, spiritual satisfaction from different things. So hopefully we see, “These people who might seem foreign to us, have the same basic desires we all have, they just find the solution to those desires in other places.”
Naja seems like the more tolerant of the two at first, but when she and Raif are making the bed, she says, “I’m scared too.” And she is actually the one who initiates the climax by going outside with Raif and telling him what she saw. So what she unleashes in Raif isn’t that much different than what she feels. And yet, after he tears the Quran, she stays behind and implores Emina to tell her what she feels and believes.
A lot of parents assume that their daughter is still a child and that she’s going through phases, and that she will come out on the other end of something. And I think one of the things I’m interested in as a parent and as a relatively recent adolescent myself — I feel like I’m in that border time where I can see both what it felt like to push back against my parents, and also what it’ll feel like when my kids push back against me, so I was interested in the idea that they want to believe that this is transient, that beliefs that are different from theirs will eventually be reconciled and she will come out on the other end as similar to them. And I think it’s not until the end of the play that Naja, the mom, realizes that her daughter is actually not a child anymore, and that she is making decisions that will be potentially permanent, or at least have permanent consequences, and that she has to try to understand what that means, too.
The other thing the play dramatizes without really resolving is the idea of Sam and Emina are on trajectories that are going in opposite directions in terms of their faith. I don’t necessarily think this is a death sentence for their relationship. I’m a big admirer of the existential theologian, Paul Tillich, who writes about the importance of doubt in the formation of faith. So maybe their journeys will support each other, but what Raif says is true, “Last year you were one of them. Who knows what you will be in a year?”
Yeah, I knew I wanted a romance at the heart of it, but the play is not a romance and it’s not about their relationship. I mean, of course you know this, given what you do and the plays you’ve championed, but to me, one of the first lessons I learned was that characters, like people, are not static. They don’t stay one thing, they’re always becoming, and that that’s part of what a play is, watching people change, right? And so, for me, right at the beginning of writing the play, I always thought none of the people in the play is a believer or is not a believer, they’re all on a continuum and they’re heading in some direction, and that that’s what gives the play dynamism. It’s like they’re all figuring out where they stand, like I am and like everybody is.
And the very nature of theater as an art form is that the actors have to go back to square one every night. I mean the act of becoming is played out for us, you know?
Exactly. And every person in the play is having a crisis of faith, and it’s just they start at different points and they end at different points. And that’s how the drama unfolds.