April 19, 2017

"The Profane" Seeks The Moral High Ground

Playwrights Horizons hasn't made a big deal of it but over the past year, the company seems to have gone out of its way to tell stories about people whose lives rarely get shown onstage and to try to sidestep stereotypes that tend to get used when telling them. Last spring, Danai Gurira's Familiar looked at Zimbabwean immigrants adjusting to an upper-middle class life in the U.S.  In the fall, Julia Cho's Aubergine focused on the uneasy relationship between a Korean-American chef and his dying father. And now, The Profane, Zayd Dohrn's play about two Muslim families, is running through May 9.

The Profane won the 2016 Horton Foote Prize for Promising New Play but it's received only lukewarm reviews. In some ways, that's understandable. The play exudes a heavy-handed earnestness that wouldn't be out of place on one of those network TV shows that like to take on the latest hot-button topic. And yet, the fact that there is a show about Muslims in which the subject of terrorism isn't even a subplot strikes me as something to be applauded.

The plot here centers around the romance between two young people, both from families who have immigrated to—and done very well in—the U.S.  Emina is the younger daughter of a novelist dad and a former dancer mom who are secular and proudly assimilated. Sam is the only son of a small business owner who sells restaurant equipment and his hijab-wearing wife who are culturally conservative and religiously observant.

Tensions arise when Emina and Sam announce their engagement and Emina's folks object to the idea of their progressively-raised child marrying into such a traditional family. Their fears allows playwright Dohrn to explore the internecine divisions that will be familiar to the members of just about every ethnic group and he's scrupulously even-handed about it. Probably too much so.

Every point gets a counterpoint. Emina is discovering her faith; Sam is beginning to doubt his. Her free-spirited parents are less tolerant than one might expect; his traditional parents are more forgiving than one might suspect. Even the settings are evenly divided with Act 1 taking place in Emina's family home (a book-lined apartment in Greenwich Village) and Act 2 in Sam's (a beautiful, if bland, house in White Plains).

But a lot of the criticism has been directed at the fact that despite his ambiguous sounding surname, Dohrn is white, the son of the former Weather Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. The naysayers complain that his outsider status has produced characters who are too generic and that his treatment of them is too p.c. 

I agree that a playwright of Middle Eastern descent like Ayad Akhtar or Mona Mansour might have provided more nuance but I don't think that Dohrn's effort should be automatically dissed. The issues of class and identity that he raises are valid. And he and director Kip Fagan treat them with respect and sensitivity.

The Profane has also given its seven-member cast the rare chance to stand center stage (click here to read a group interview with them).  Not one of those actors has appeared in a Playwrights Horizons production before this one. Here's hoping that this isn't the last time we see them there, in other plays about Muslim life and in ones about life in general too.

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