Making on the Margins
Scholar-artist-educator Asif Majid explains his artistic process.
I make theater with a lot of people who don’t think of themselves as performers. Whether that refers to schoolkids struggling through the awkward years of adolescence, folks who have never walked into a theater before, or people whose community backgrounds discourage participation in the arts (and this takes a variety of forms), my work comes from a place that is simultaneously pedagogical and political. I seek to make theater that improves communication skills and self-confidence while privileging stories marginalized by the heteronormative and able-bodied “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that dominates contemporary Western society, defined by critical theorist bell hooks as the “interlocking political systems that are the foundation of [US-American] politics.” Following hooks’ theory, one place to do this is, I think, on the margins.
Take a recent example of my own theater practice. When working with an interracial group of teenagers visiting my university in the UK to learn about opportunities that may exist for them in the future, I used a variation of an activity called What’s the Story? In this activity, two people take a frozen, neutral position in front of an audience. They play two characters, A and B, about whom nothing is known. The audience’s job is to generate the story of these two characters based only on what they see in front of them. Variations are introduced in which the only things that change between A and B are their proximity (how close they are to each other), orientation (in front of, behind, or facing each other), or position (sitting or standing). The point of the exercise is to get groups to imaginatively think together while boiling theater down to its basics: performers and an audience in a space.
On this particular day, A and B, played by two teenagers of South Asian heritage, stood at the front of the room. The audience decided that A and B had gotten into a fight over some long-forgotten, but recurring, grievance. This was despite the fact that A and B had been friends since primary school. I asked about how the two ended up in the room that they were in, and the audience took it quite literally: “they’re two people visiting a university,” one student said. I wondered what A and B might be interested in studying: “computer science” and “fine arts” were the answers. Had either A or B’s family members gone to university before? “No,” the audience decided. B immediately broke out of the image: “but that’s not true,” he said. I told him to remain frozen, and he returned his focus to remaining still.
In that marginal moment of broken stillness, something political happened. Not only did the teenager playing B attempt to claim his actual family’s history of being educated — quite clearly a point of pride that warranted pushback against the activity’s rules and the audience’s imagination — but he also challenged an assumption that the audience leveled at him based on how he looked in that moment. The value of improving his lot in life through education or of fulfilling a particular familial expectation about what he ought to achieve was embedded in who he was, enough to claim it as a truth. Being put in a marginal position in which he became a body in an image rather than a body with a powerful voice had the reverse effect, privileging his own lived experience. (There are, of course, echoes here of how Britain’s imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy caricatures and controls black and brown bodies — and that’s exactly the point.) It is at the meeting place with life that theater reveals its most radical potential.
Performance is not inherently good or bad. Instead, it is what we make it. Too often, theater-makers and -supporters get caught in a ring of misleading assumptions: “I am doing work that I believe to be good, therefore it is good, therefore everyone else must believe in it too, and therefore I will continue to do it.” It is not a far cry from this loop of logic to the stereotype of the self-absorbed artist or self-referential artistic community. By engaging with individuals and groups that are not involved in the arts at all, those on the margins of what it means to make performance in the West today, the capacity for theater to make change while creating beautiful things becomes clear. The teenager playing B may have been fidgety throughout the exercise, but it was his momentary and marginal articulation that was most beautiful of all.
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Lab Fellow Asif Majid was born outside Baltimore, MD. His mother grew up in Tanzania on the shores of Lake Victoria, and later became an avid gardener and public health expert. His father grew up in northern Pakistan as a poetry enthusiast and budding engineer. As an infant, Asif enjoyed playing pots and pans at his mother’s feet, resulting in a lifelong passion for performance that has led him to mosques, schools, churches, cafés, festivals, treetops, concert halls, and community centers. He graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and valedictorian from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he designed his own major focusing on peace and conflict. Asif then earned an MA with distinction in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University, during which time he devised and assistant directed Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage at The Lab. Currently, he is pursuing a practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media, and Performance at The University of Manchester, for which he is doing an ethnography of devising theater with British Muslim youth. As an educator, Asif has engaged thousands of young people in the United States and abroad through summer programs, Model UN activities, and work at Arena Stage, Seeds of Peace, and Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, using online and theatrical simulations to develop their understandings of racism, identity, and conflict.