Sahar Ullah, founder and creative director of Hijabi Monologues, talks about the show’s ten-year international run and what makes an audience laugh, cry or gasp.
What kind of stories will we hear in the Hijabi Monologues?
Each story is about a moment in an individual’s life. Some of them are about work, some are about love, some are about politics. It could be about somebody looking for the perfect mask or cape. It could be about someone’s frustration with the burden of representation. Some stories are funny, some are painful and some are uncomfortable.
What’s the format of a Hijabi Monologues performance?
Actors – professional and non-professional – perform a collection of core monologues gathered from local women as the production travels from city to city. We collect the stories through contests and workshops. They all reflect the true experiences of self-identifying Muslim women.
Which stories do the audiences react strongly to?
It depends on the audience. Our audiences are mixed, from rural North Carolina to a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts. We’ve been performing for ten years across the United States – we’ve been in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as smaller cities and rural areas and the American South.
Sometimes the audiences will be a combination of Muslims and people of other faiths or no faiths. We’ve seen a mixture of genders, people of different socio-economic backgrounds, and different generations. Sometimes it will be predominantly people of colour and sometimes it will be a majority-white audience – sometimes in a school or a town or a theatre where the audience has’t encountered many people of colour or Muslims.
Sometimes, the jokes really speak to the crowd. One predominantly black and brown audience laughed very loudly during the story called ‘Hurricane’, when a young woman says that she thinks praying by the cop cars might be the safest route.
In another show, there were a lot of pastors and inter-faith workers and chaplains. It was the first time we got a very big laugh for a joke we make in reference to the Protestant Reformation, that calls for a Muslim Protestant Reformation.
There are uncomfortable stories, and people respond to discomfort in different ways. We hear gasps, and sometimes the silence is thundering. It’s a good silence. Some stories are painful, and you can hear the audience listening carefully. And after a deeply painful story, the audience react strongly to the comedy that comes next.
When we performed in North Carolina, we told the story of three young Muslims who were shot in the head in their own homes, and how three of us reacted to that incident in our respective cities. That especially affected the audience – it was an incident that happened very close to where we were performing.
Which story have you reacted to most strongly?
Some stories have taken on different meanings and layers for me as I’ve sat with them over the years, and continue to read and listen as they’re performed by different people.
One example is ‘My Son’s Wedding Feast’, the story of a woman who struggles to remember the moments after learning about the sudden death of her eldest son. That story’s meaning has grown for me – it’s become multi-layered and incredibly profound. And there are stories that don’t affect me the same way. Me and my team of performers have gotten so used to them that we’re able to make fun of ourselves and the stories themselves, the way you would with an old friend.
As well as in the US, Hijabi Monologues has performed in several other countries. What has the experience of telling your stories across borders added to the performance?
These stories are not about the hijab. That’s important to us, and explicit in our story guidelines. The women happen to wear them.
When people are interacting with women who happen to wear headscarves, sometimes that’s the first thing on their interlocutor’s mind. It’s not necessarily the first thing on the mind of the woman who’s wearing that headscarf.
One of the great things that has come out of Hijabi Monologues, especially when we do story contests, are the other experiences of women who wear headscarves. They don’t just want to talk about what’s on their head. And perhaps a big misconception is that the hijab is their primary focus, all the time.
Experiences are varied – that’s another thing we’ve learned from being on the road and sharing our stories with different audiences.
Hijabi Monologues ran from 28 to 30 September at Bush Theatre, London. The British Council is Hijabi Monologues’ main partner in Europe.
You can watch all nine Hijabi Monologues London stories.