A staged reading of English department graduate Wajahat Ali’s critically-acclaimed play Domestic Crusaders will be performed in Berkeley on April 10 and 11 as part of the ongoing “Islam Today” program run by Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Center for South Asia Studies, and Center for Southeast Asia Studies.
The play focuses on a day in the life of a modern Muslim Pakistani-American family of six eclectic, unique members, who convene at the family house to celebrate the twenty-first birthday of the youngest child. What happens, the play asks, when you drop three generations of a Pakistani family into the middle of California’s Silicon Valley? Wajahat tells how he came to write this piece in Ishmael Reed’s Short Story Workshop in Fall 2001. He writes:
Since my last name begins with “A,” I was first to present my story to the class. Because I am a supreme procrastinator and suffer from long bouts of writer’s block, I had written it at 3 am the night before. It was a four- page monologue spoken by a female mosquito who lamented her love life and current single status. Ishmael Reed was amused – as were my peers.
A few days later, however, the two towers fell, and a permanent fork emerged in the Muslim American timeline – there would forever be a pre-911 and post 9-11 America.
I essentially dropped out of classes for three weeks following the tragedy to deal with the ensuing madness: I had been elected to the Muslim Student Association Board the year before and had come into contact with student leaders representing every cultural, political and religious group on campus. We all met with the Chancellor’s office to deal with any potential anti-Muslim backlash. We did the first open Jumaa prayer service on campus as a form of interfaith healing that was attended by nearly 1,100 people. We partnered with student groups who empathized with our predicament and wanted to create proactive solutions and forums to foster mutual understanding and multicultural alliances.
Three weeks later I returned to Ishmael Reed’s class to present my second short story. This one, written at 4 am, was about the 50th wedding anniversary of two ogres, named Bulbus and Rotunda, who despise one another and secretly poison each other’s goblets. The students loved it, but Ishmael told me to see him after class. I thought he chew me out and condemn me to academic perdition for missing three weeks of class. Instead, he told me that I was a natural playwright and that I should write a family drama about Muslim Americans. He said I’d have to write 20 pages to pass the class. I thought he was crazy. He might as well have told me to become a Swedish Yodeler. It was madness.
But madness sometimes proves to be a wonderful muse and an inspiring mistress. My time at UC Berkeley directly influenced The Domestic Crusaders: the Sprouling, the activism, the attempts to play basketball at People’s Park and RSF only to be perpetually schooled, the Friday prayers at the YWCA, eating double burgers at Julie’s Café on Bancroft, late night KingPin donut-scarfing, hanging with diverse friends and trying desperately to borrow notes for the (many) classes I missed.
If there was no U.C. Berkeley, there’d be no play. That’s the truth. And so it’s only fitting that the great big wheel of life has spun around 9 years later and brought the play back to its home.
Indeed, The Domestic Crusaders has been on quite a tour: with the help of Ishmael Reed’s wife Carla, who also teaches in the Interdisciplinary Studies department at Berkeley, the play premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in 2005. It did a run at the San Jose State University Theater a few months later and then headlined the prestigious 2008 Performing the World Conference at the All Stars Theatre in New York, York in October 2008. It went on to complete a historic, box-office breaking, 5 week Off Broadway run at the landmark Nuyorican Poets Café in New York.
In addition to a lengthy write-up in the New York Times, the play has had its share of famous supporters. Nobel laureate Toni Morrison deems it “brilliant. Moving. Shapely. Clever. Funny,” while Academy-Award winning actress Emma Thompson writes that it is “exactly the sort of theater we need today. The gulf that separates cultures must be bridged and Art is one of our best hopes.” Ishmael Reed calls Wajahat “a major new voice” and ranks The Domestic Crusaders with the plays of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. In fact, Reed says that this kind of amazing student work is not uncommon: he describes how the recent anthology that he published, From Totems to Hip-Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across the Americas 1900-2002, included student work alongside that of more established writers. “Academics and critics couldn’t tell the difference,” he said.
The English Department is pleased to welcome Wajahat Ali and his ground-breaking work back to Berkeley. There will be three readings: matinee and evening performances on Saturday, April 10 and a matinee on Sunday, April 11, followed by a Q&A with Wajahat. For tickets, visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/99893.