As Ramadan comes to an end on May 2 and Muslims around the world celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, the holiday which marks the end of Ramadan, The Public’s LuEsther Hall is dark for the day. Currently in previews, Mona Mansour’s The Vagrant Trilogy follows a Palestinian family through a three-part epic play that unfolds over three-and-a-half hours with two intermissions. Set in 1967, the first part begins with Adham, a scholar, who travels to London with his wife for his work. When war breaks out at home in Palestine, Adham is faced with the decision to stay away or return home. The second and third parts play out what would follow in the wake of each decision with two alternate realities.
Featuring Muslim characters, the play began previews soon after the beginning of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar when Islam believes all scripture was revealed and Muhammed received the first revelation of the Quran. The holy month is observed worldwide through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts, though the dates shift every year as the Islamic calendar follows the phases of the moon. No matter the season or where they live, observing Muslims begin a daily fast at sunrise and do not eat or drink anything—including water—until sunset. With the timing of The Vagrant Trilogy, which began previews April 8 and has a current run through May 15, during Ramadan, conversations were prompted about what equity and inclusivity looks like for Muslims observing Ramadan and what has changed in the industry for Muslim actors, designers, and theatre professionals.
“What I’ve seen and experienced in the industry in the past versus now at The Public, has been a jarringly different experience in the most beautiful of way,” says Osh Ashruf, who stars in the show as Hamzi. “Typically, if you are somebody who is observing Ramadan in the American theatre, often you are on your own, or perhaps in the company of a couple of other peers. In many ways, you feel very isolated. In my experience, [observers] have often maybe not been as open about it because [they] don’t want to make a big deal about it. That sort of goes against the very act of doing it and remaining humble.”
Dina El-Aziz, who serves as the production’s costume designer, says that in her past work in wardrobe, she would often eat as fast as she could between quick changes. “This is the first year people have actually started asking about it. I don’t know if it’s the cultural awareness that’s been happening and the need for more equitable theatre, but this year was the first year that people asked me if I needed any accommodation. Or I felt like I could bring up the topic.”
Ashruf attributes that creation of a safe and inviting environment to the company managers Liza Witmer and Andreas Huang. “They really gave everyone a sense of agency to either name yourself or not. They asked everybody about any ideas or opinions they had on how The Public could shape its culture around Ramadan, and then Liza and Andreas shared they were creating snack stations with fruit, turkey jerky, little fig bars, dates, and such to break your fast, should you be performing or working on set as crew.”
The snack stations are available to all cast and crew, regardless of religion or if they’re fasting. However, those not fasting were asked that in the case of a station running low, to please refrain and find another station to use. “Not only were they accommodating Muslims observing Ramadan, I would say what was remarkable about that gesture was The Public said, ‘This is for everybody to take part in’ instead of ‘Hey, this is for the people observing.’ It starts to bring awareness to Ramadan, and it allows people to feel included. Everybody is welcomed into it, and that is what Ramadan is about. It’s about awareness, talking to people, alms to the poor, and putting yourself in the shoes of those who don’t have as much.”
The company managers also worked with understudy Bassam Abdelfattah on creating additional accommodations. Abdelfattah shares some of the differences between his experiences on the production now, versus its originally scheduled 2020 run which was cancelled days before performances. “In the rehearsal space in 2020, the only quiet place I could find to pray was a space by the trash bin around the corner. I was happy because I could do my prayers, but crappy because I was praying by the trash. Now in 2022, I thought ‘Okay, this time I’m going to ask for a place. If the theatre community is trying to be kinder and more inclusive, I’m going to ask for a quiet, clean place to pray.’ And sure enough, that was the case. I felt more comfortable asking about it, and they were super receptive.”
“Company managers are the people that can make or break culture and community,” Ashruf says, “and these two company managers, in particular, are demonstrating what it means to really take care of somebody. I’m really humbled by them.”
These changes are steps in the right direction to creating more equitable spaces for Muslim theatre performers and professionals. But, there is another aspect to consider: Muslim audiences.
With evening performances scheduled to start before sunset, audience members observing Ramadan may have waited for matinees and performances after Eid. Otherwise, their fast would extend about 17 hours from before 6 AM to after the show ends. “If we’re trying to get Muslim people to see the show, we may not get them,” says Abdelfattah. “Mona, the playwright, was kind of thinking about the same thing. Mona actually took the initiative and brought it to The Public’s attention, and they have a basket with packaged dates for observing audience members to break their fast during the show.”
El-Aziz, who has also worked in theatre in Egypt, thinks there are still conversations to be had about show runs during Ramadan. “Maybe in the future, if it’s a show featuring Muslim characters, people will consider the scheduling,” she says. “It seems like a huge ask. It’s perfectly natural for me, as someone who lived in a community who did that. Maybe there are matinees for those shows during Ramadan. I think there’s flexibility in the future.”
That beginning of a shift towards more equitable theatre excites all three who also look forward to the future and what further steps can be taken on that path. “The culture change within the theatre industry I think is a great thing, and I think it’s a great time for everyone to come out and be who they are,” Bassam says. “I think a lot of times we depend on other people to fight for us, but I think part of that fight is people just coming out and being themselves. People just have to be brave enough to be themselves and ask for that space.”