This weekend, the Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies will be presenting their spring production, “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes.” While the cast is small, with only five actors, the show asks big questions about stereotypes in Hollywood and grapples with issues of representation.
Heather Nathans, chair of the department and director of “Jihad Jones,” sat down with the Daily to talk about her experience directing such a thematically complex piece.
“Jihad Jones” follows struggling actor Ashraf as he is called into his agent’s office and offered the role of a lifetime, with an amazing director and plenty of money. The only problem, though, is that Ashraf would have to play a terrorist. This decision causes Ashraf to question his potential role in racial stereotyping and representation.
Nathans explained the significance behind this plot setup.
“The entire play is about Ashraf wrestling with the decision of, ‘Do I take this role and maybe I have the chance to make a more humane terrorist? Or try to change things from the inside? Or do I say, no, I’m going to stand up for what I believe in and continue to play Hamlet’ — which is what he’s been doing — ‘for $200 a week and live in my parents’ basement?’” Nathans said.
Nathans finds this play particularly relevant because it poses these questions.
“It’s looking at stereotypes for racial and ethnic and religious groups; it’s also looking at stereotypes for women, because the giant female star in the play has a really powerful monologue about — ‘You think you get stereotyped? Do you know what it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood? Guess what I get offered?’ And so I think the entertainment industry is trying to look at some of those issues, but I think that they are still very much in the mix. You can see a TV show, you can see a movie, and you can sort of smack your head and go, ‘Oh, my god, no, really? Aren’t we beyond that?’”
Nathans hopes that viewers of the play evaluate their own role in these issues and what they can do to combat harmful stereotyping.
“I hope most people would agree that stereotypes are bad, but [the play] doesn’t just want you to go, ‘Okay, well, noted,’ and walk away. It’s wants you to think about what lies in your power to change — what can you as an audience member do when you’re confronted with a stereotype? Do you challenge? Do you say, ‘I’m not going to go see that movie any more, or that director’s movies,’ or, ‘I’m not going to buy that book, because I’m not going to allow that to continue?’” Nathans said. “And that’s something that I talk about in my research — the assumption that stereotypes have always been with us. Stereotypes are created by people. There is a choice made to perpetuate them, or to resurrect and redirect them.”
In addition, Nathans has previously worked with the playwright of “Jihad Jones,” Yussef El Guindi, who is visiting Tufts this week.
“He’s going to visit a number of different classes. He’s going to have the opportunity to meet with different student groups and I think that’ll be really exciting. He’s going to do a talk-back after opening night about the issues that the play raises and his work as a playwright. He’s somebody who frequently wrestles with issues of stereotypes and whose stories get told, [as well as] whose voices get heard.”
Nathans explained that because the spring is such a busy time, the spring show is designed to be a smaller production. “It’s five people,” she said. “It’s great! It’s a fantastic cast — we have people who have been on our stage before, we have people who have never been on our stage before. That’s very Tufts, I think.”
In order to create a meaningful and well-rounded experience for the actors, Nathans made sure everyone involved was well-informed about these issues of representation.
“We wanted to create as much context for the actors as possible,” Nathans said. “So we brought in a number of different speakers, actors read articles, they saw documentaries before they came into the rehearsal process.”
According to Nathans, speakers included Celene Ibrahim, the Muslim chaplain; Walker Bristol, the Humanist chaplain; Nandi Bynoe, assistant dean of student affairs; and Tasha Oren, associate professor in the Film and Media Studies (FMS) program.
In addition, Nathans noted, “We have two graduate students in our program who work on Muslim and Arab theater, and they came in to talk about both what’s happening in the field and also their own personal experiences of feeling targeted.”
Overall, Nathans hoped that this contextualization would create not just a more powerful production, but a more meaningful learning experience for the actors.
“What we wanted to do [was] create as much of a context, as many opportunities for conversation, so that everyone would feel like they had the opportunity to hear, to express, to question, to learn,” Nathans said. “I’m so grateful to all our colleagues around campus who have collaborated. We’ve really had a lot of people come in, share time, make place in their classes … But I’m really grateful for the Chaplaincy, for the Dean’s Office up in Dowling [Hall], for Tasha, for FMS to come in, it’s been really kind. And people have given us time in their classrooms as well — so, we’re going to an Arabic class; we’re going to a playwriting class, et cetera.”
Nathans urged everyone to see the show, not only because of the hard work of the actors, but because of the relevant themes of “Jihad Jones.”
“For us, it’s part of our commitment to thinking about whose stories get told onstage, and who has the opportunity to share their experience, but then who also has the opportunity to think, ‘I never knew that was your experience,’ and learn something from it as well,” Nathans said.
“Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes” will be showing in the Balch Arena Theater this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., as well as on Saturday at 2 p.m. Depending on the night, tickets range from one to $10 and can be purchased online at Tufts Tickets.