Steve Moore's latest play makes a pilgrimage to the truth of a misunderstood faith
For some 225 years, this country never felt any pressing need to think about Islam, much less comprehend it. Sure, it rose from the same soil as the faiths embraced by most Americans, its roots inextricably entwined with Judaism and Christianity, but hey, as long as it was embraced by less than 1% of the populace, the vast majority of us didn't have to give it any more serious thought than we did, say, Buddhism or Unitarianism.
Then came September 11, and in our struggle to fathom the horror of that day, we came up hard against Islam. In considering the lives of the terrorists, the cause for which they sacrificed themselves, we couldn't avoid it. And yet, as a nation, we still didn't think about Islam. In our rush to assign reason to incomprehensible tragedy, we just made it the cause of our misery, as if the vile doctrine of hatred spewed by a radical fundamentalist sect were representative of the faith entire. And we've been content to leave it at that. It's like looking at Christianity as if all its practitioners were snake handlers, but we do it all the same. In the new drama Kneeling Down at Noon, a character spells it out this way to a Muslim attending a U.S. university: "You believe something that everyone has just decided to not understand."
That play, which premieres this week at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, is an attempt to move beyond that collective attitude of willful ignorance toward a sense of Islam's true nature, its spirit, history, principles, the ways they are practiced, and the kinds of people who practice them. It was commissioned by a Catholic university, which may seem odd until you recall how recently in our nation's past Catholics were demonized as agents of the Pope. There's a keen sense among Catholics of the need for religious tolerance and understanding in American society. And when you're talking about St. Edward's University, well, its theatre department has never been shy about confronting issues of social justice in the plays it presents, as has been made clear in such productions as The Kentucky Cycle, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The House Project, Cesar and Ruben, and most recently Parade, based on a murder in 1913 Atlanta for which a Jew was unjustly convicted and ultimately lynched.
So it wasn't much of a stretch for Ev Lunning Jr., artistic director of the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, to call up local playwright Steve Moore to talk about writing a politically oriented play for the theatre. And it wasn't even a stretch for Lunning to want to explore Islam. Unlike most of us, Lunning had been thinking about the faith much of his life. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home to the first mosque built in the United States. For some time, he presented a one-man show about the theologian Martin Luther, in which religious tolerance and Islam were discussed. And he is aware that Islam is the fastest growing religion in this country, which, given its place in the current political climate, make it ripe as a subject for drama.
No, the stretch was for Moore, whose plays have tended toward the personal and dreamlike, investigations into deep emotional states through vivid metaphors and surreal theatrical images, shows such as The Whimsy, Fatigue, The Kindermann Depiction, as well as the Austincentric drama Nightswim (in which this writer appeared as an actor) and the dark satire Not Clown. He wasn't convinced he was the writer to pen a play about Islam, capitalism, and democracy when Lunning asked. "I said that I would try," Moore recalls, "but that I didn't know anything about Islam, and what I knew about capitalism and democracy was nonscholarly. But he was fine with all that."
Moore sees courage in that act of faith on Lunning's part: "I'm very impressed that he even asked. I mean, he didn't really know me. And he knew that I didn't know the material. And I suppose it could have been a complete flop and put him in a very awkward situation. He made a brave choice, and I admire that."
So The Islam Project was launched with Moore as writer. It began, naturally enough, with much research on the subject, chiefly through books and plays suggested by Lunning. Then, in the spring of this year, Moore taught a class at St. Ed's, what he describes as "kind of a chimera of an Islamic studies class, a political play reading class, and a playwriting class." Lots more reading, with visits from Muslims and scholars of Islam, visits to a mosque, and the students writing scenes based on material covered in class. "It ended up having this sort of cubist and communal approach to finding out about Islam," says Moore.
All this gave the playwright a mountain of background for a play, but mining the actual play from it proved tricky. At first, he thought he might rework an existing drama, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise, about a Jew in Jerusalem dealing with the forces of the Crusades and the Islamic ruler Saladin. Then, when he was teaching the class, Moore says, "My fantasy was that we would cobble a play together from scenes the students had written, but I couldn't find a way to do it." With every draft, the play took a different form. "At some points it was kind of Islam 101, almost like a lecture that seemed really tedious," Moore notes. "At others it seemed so far from it that it seemed purely character-driven. At one point, I had convinced myself that I could write the perfect play that would satisfy everyone and get it all right, and I would be a hero to Muslims worldwide. [laughs] But I had absorbed so much anxiety over wanting to accomplish this impossible task that I had a kind of collapse and then just decided that I have to do the best I can. I have to reach inward to make a good play that anyone will like."
Eventually, a story began to take shape, part of it set in Damascus, Syria, and part of it set in Austin. In Damascus, Moore says, an activist writer who has written about the rights of Syria's Kurdish people comes under the suspicion of the Syrian secret police, and two families of differing religious devotion are caught in his effort to flee the country. Meanwhile, the son from one family is in the U.S. at school, where he meets with an Iraq war vet who's become interested in Islam, partly because of his experiences in Iraq. All their stories play out over the course of a 24-hour period, and, as Moore puts it, "The pressure of the dictatorship and the secret police in Syria provide the crucible to learn about how people's faith informs their decisions and their choices about their loyalties and what their higher purpose is."
If that description sounds different than your typical Steve Moore play the kind in which characters gather pieces of the sky in wheelbarrows or tie stones they say are mockingbirds to their chests it's because this play is different for Moore. "It's straight-ahead in a lot of ways, this play," he acknowledges. "One of the things I really try to do when I write a play is write a play that's completely unlike any play that I've ever made before. And I never thought that trajectory would get me to write, like, kitchen-sink drama [laughs] and it's not quite kitchen-sink, but it's more like it than anything else I've done."
Few people could see the changes in Moore's writing more acutely than Katie Pearl, who has collaborated with Moore on numerous projects and is directing Kneeling Down at Noon, as the Islam play is now called. "It's different than his other plays in that usually there's a system of objects or this metaphorical thread, and that really has burned away here. It's so much about these people and their lives, and Islam itself carries so many things with it, that there wasn't room to add anything. Usually, there will be these long sequences where my imagination can go to create these kind of extended beautiful moments, and there's really not room for that in this. Its logic has to be the real world logic, not something that's different."
With that grounding in the real world has come real-world concerns about how its subjects are portrayed. At every opportunity, Moore is quick to point out his ignorance on the subject of Islam, which fuels his commitment to honor the faith with as accurate a representation as is in his power. "When I meet Muslims for the first time, and they hear about the project, they don't know whether we're going to do justice to this thing they care so much about," he says. "So I've had to keep reminding myself of that, that the first impulse is not to trust you because your hands are on this thing that they love. I feel that I'm carrying a weight, and I want to carry it well. I want to do justice to the thing, and I know that I have worked very, very hard to do so."
Pearl has been witness to Moore's diligence. "One thing that Steve was so careful to do was gather a huge group of experts and non-experts from the Muslim community and the academic community to be part of the process," she says. "At every point along the way he's put out a script and said, 'Tell me where I'm not right.' And they have." For example, one scene no longer in the play had a non-Muslim asking an imam about converting. When the questioner thought the imam didn't want him to convert, he asked if it was because he was white, and the imam responded by telling him not to be a jerk, albeit with a considerably coarser term relating to a certain bodily orifice. "No way!" the experts told Moore. Imams never swear.
The students have also served to run checks on the appropriateness of certain ideas. One character summons a djinn, who happens to be a 17-year-old American girl (and who feels a bit put out at being summoned to the Middle East when she's making cupcakes for a friend). When it was suggested that the djinn might be the blood relation of a human character, the students spoke out against it, arguing that such a relationship would violate Islamic tradition. If they truly wanted to portray the tradition faithfully, they had to respect that dividing line.
To Pearl, that situation reveals the level of the students' investment in this project. "Every actor is taking on this responsibility of knowing that they're trying to present somebody who comes from [someplace different] ethnically, culturally, geographically, religiously, politically. Many of them are entering territories that are so beyond their scope, and they really, really are committed to trying to understand [them], like trying to understand what it means to make a decision that causes your wife to be taken away. So I have a lot of respect for them."
Moore is similarly impressed, by the students, by Lunning, and by all the Muslims who have contributed their knowledge and goodwill to this work. "It's really amazing to be in the presence of so many people who are so invested in the project," he says. He calls it a mixed blessing, however, because of expectations involved. "Muslims in America have reason to be a little bit suspicious about a project created by some bunch of non-Muslims about Islam. They can't necessarily assume you're going to get it right. And they can't necessarily assume that it won't be without prejudices, whether you intend them to be there or not.
"So much of the process, for me and Katie and the students and in the design, has been understanding where our preconceptions lie. And they lie at all levels, from a simple thing like assuming that all Muslims are from the Middle East, when, in fact, most Muslims are from Indonesia, to these deep-seated things that have washed over you from media and history and mostly-Christian society that Islam is a religion that's more connected to violence, that Allah is an angrier god than the Christian God, that Islam is anti-feminist. All those things have been stripped away over and over again. You meet Muslims who are so devoted and so kindhearted and so generous, and because they love this religion so deeply, they want so much for you to understand what they love about it and hope that you can find a way to put that into your play. And you want to ... of course, you want to, because it will only make the play both more true and more lovely. That's been an absolutely new experience for me to be in the presence of a community like that in making this thing.
"Some part of me wondered if I was going to convert to Islam by the time I was done with this thing. I don't think that will ever happen, but I have a deep fondness for this faith. It's really gotten a hold of me. What you learn so much about Islam when you have this intimate experience with it as a non-Muslim is that it has a deep, deep root of hospitality and generosity and openness. That's the thing the play is trying to reflect back more than anything."
Moore's sensitivity to generosity and openness so evident in all his plays is what makes him an ideal candidate to prompt us to think about a faith that we profoundly need to comprehend. It's also the quality that keeps him questioning his own role in this project. "I keep going back to whether I should have said no to Ev," he says, "because a very good case can be made for the idea that Ev should have asked a Muslim playwright to work on this play and not a non-Muslim who doesn't know a damn thing about it. And I really have come to believe and I hope it's not a justification that there's something you can get by having a complete novice, a complete ignoramus, put in charge of explaining that to other complete novices and ignoramuses, if that person is true of heart and is really going to devote himself to do the best he can to represent this thing that he doesn't understand. It is generous to think of an Islamic community handing Islam to a non-Islamic community, but what about a non-Islamic community handing Islam, as best they can, to a Muslim community and a non-Muslim community? Can that gesture happen in a true way? I think we'll get there."
Kneeling Down at Noon runs through Nov. 19, Wednesday-Saturday, 7:30pm, at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre on the St. Edward's University campus, 3001 S. Congress. For more information, call 448-8484.