AMERICAN THEATRE | SWANA Theatre Deserves Better Futures

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AMERICAN THEATRE | SWANA Theatre Deserves Better Futures

Goodman Theatre’s 2024 production of Sanaz Toossi’s “English.” (Photo by Liz Lauren)

In early April, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget published the results of a review that put forth the inclusion of “Middle Eastern and North African” as a new racial category in the census. What the U.S. government finally acknowledged with this new box to check is what Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA, the decolonial term for the Middle East/MENA) people have known through their lived experience checking “other” in this country: Our lives, our stories, are ones of ambiguity and are thus unfortunately ripe for misrepresentation.

When it comes to art and media, the conversation about representation is often framed around the internal impact of seeing oneself represented on the stage or screen. In our theatre field, we’ve seen movement to herald color-conscious casting, especially since the pandemic, and then identity-conscious casting, most notably in Latinx theatre. But SWANA theatre and its artists have not received the same rigor of intervention. Part of the problem stems from most theatres and artists relying on casting pedagogy established almost three decades ago and falling behind industry norms for other marginalized groups within our industry.

For instance, in a chapter of Casting a Movement: The Welcome Table Initiative, a seminal text on casting published in 2019, the founder and former artistic director of California’s Golden Thread Productions, Torange Yeghiazarian, recounts a story from 1998: She remembers that her advisor recommended that she cast anyone as Iranian so that her play could be produced. Accordingly, Yeghiazarian notes, in the 1990s, casting anyone who “looked” Middle Eastern was a common practice.

“That has changed,” Yeghiazarian shared in a recent interview. “People are putting more effort into at least casting culturally defined characters from that specific community when possible.” 

Silk Road Cultural Center’s 2016 world premiere production of Jamil Khoury’s “Mosque Alert.” (Photo by Airan Wright)

Some have argued that casting actors based on looks is justified given a lack of SWANA talent and/or a lack of SWANA actors talented enough to match the ambitions of directors and playwrights. This is a familiar excuse used by other theatres in the case of miscasting Latinx and Black characters. While the previous lack of an official SWANA census category makes it difficult to track the numbers, Chicago, for example, is a minority-majority city, with a vast SWANA presence, including the largest Palestinian community in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (And we only know that because the information was collected as a write-in; it is said to be a massive underestimation.)

Still, here in Chicago we saw years of productions like Broken Nose Theatre’s staging of Jennifer Blackmer’s Human Terrain in 2016 and SWANA playwright Yussef El Guindi’s Language Rooms in 2019, in which South Asian (i.e., Indian or Pakistani) and SWANA actors were cast interchangeably. Even at Silk Road Rising (now Silk Road Cultural Center, SRCC), an industry standard-setting organization specifically dedicated to representing “Pan-Asian, North African, and Muslim experiences…including their diaspora communities,” we’ve seen multiple productions with non-SWANA actors in SWANA roles, including for productions like artistic director Jamil Khoury’s 2016 world premiere Mosque Alert. (Khoury declined an interview for this article.) More recently, we’ve seen productions of Kareem Fahmy’s A Distinct Society at Writers Theatre and Sylvia Khoury’s Selling Kabul at Northlight Theatre cast South Asian actors and SWANA actors interchangeably.

Others, including Yeghiazarian in a recent interview, argue that embodying other stories, identities, and lives is part of the acting job. But assigning SWANA roles based on appearances and limited cultural context means that, for instance, South Asian actors are often cast as SWANA characters, but, interestingly, not in the role of other ethnicities or nationalities they share borders with within the broader continent of Asia, including those of China, Vietnam, and Thailand. The Orientalist perception that sees South Asian and SWANA bodies as interchangeable is rooted in post-9/11 hysteria and stereotypes we should work to dismantle. According to a 2003 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the enmeshment of the terms Arab, South Asian, Muslim, and Sikh in American culture originates from the use of these terms “indiscriminately in the media and in popular discourse” following 9/11. A 2011 report by the Department of Justice, Confronting Discrimination in the Post 9/11 Era, confirms that most Americans are still unaware of the differences between these groups mentioned above a decade later. 

As theatrical practices are starting to shift post-Covid-lockdown, it is becoming more clear that casting anyone who “passes” as SWANA actually deepens the pipeline problem used to justify the miscasting practice and pushes SWANA actors out of the industry, creating a never-ending cycle of misrepresentation.

Part of the problem that fuels this cycle is the long history of stories that speak to non-SWANA audiences, with narratives that affirm Orientalist stereotypes, representations that dominate American media and negatively affect public attitudes and policy support, and in turn lead to real-life discrimination. Theatre scholar and director Ali-Reza Mirsajadi outlines the hurdle as a “constant rhetoric of anti-Islamic, anti-Muslim, and anti-[SWANA] tropes that correlate any kind of [SWANA] identity—not just ones expressing politics and resistance, but ones of also simply existing through a lens of harm—of being akin to terrorism, or to being aligned with terrorist groups.”

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Broken Nose Theatre’s 2016 production of “Human Terrain” by Jennifer Blackmer. (Photo by Matthew Freer)

For example, Blackmer’s Human Terrain, in a similar fashion to the Magical Negro trope, tended to use “good” SWANA characters to move a sympathetic white lead’s narrative forward while painting them in opposition to the “bad” SWANA characters. This sharp binary between “good” and “bad” robs SWANA folks of nuance. Even after the industry-wide push for equity for marginalized communities in theatre in 2020, similar problems arise in Fahmy’s A Distinct Society and Khoury’s Selling Kabul, productions from SWANA playwrights and directors that associate SWANA identity with a noble struggle and suffering, with the latter including stereotypical and reductionist (mis)representations, such as emotional, submissive women, and angry, aggressive men.

Of course, many stories of SWANA suffering are personal and rooted in history, and constitute a form of representation that helps some folks feel visible. Though this might be the case with Fahmy’s and Khoury’s plays as well, the widely disproportionate platforming of trauma stories by predominantly white institutions in our field is causing harm to the SWANA communities and theatremakers. Such narratives consistently normalize our suffering on a mass scale but rarely our joy. Why would SWANA actors stay in a field that not only repeatedly asks them to audition for trauma-ridden, identity-siloed roles, but also repeatedly sees those few roles written for them performed by non-SWANA actors?

SWANA representation has been so stymied that our own community members might not be incentivized to create stories that don’t fit into the trauma-porn page-to-stage pipeline built by the American theatre to allow us a generous crumb of visibility. Where are more of our SWANA comedies? What about sci-fi SWANA futurism, murder mysteries, or love stories that don’t need to take place during a war to be high-stakes, deeply meaningful, or universally profound?

As director, playwright, and scholar Malek Najjar outlines in his chapter in Casting a Movement, issues that keep SWANA actors out of the industry compound as they move through their career. What starts as “challenges these actors face in academia and training” are then furthered by “challenges they face as they enter the professional field” and magnified in the “state of a field that contains little to no opportunities for these actors.”

Here we advocate for adopting solution-oriented actions that we believe would move SWANA theatre forward by empowering our community to “take up space, put on that story that we want to tell,” as Sahar Assaf, current executive artistic director of Golden Thread, puts it. We need stories that humanize SWANA bodies, not normalize violence against them. We need crews that create and produce such narratives to include not only SWANA directors and playwrights, as has been the case so far, but also actors and technical and creative staff. Finally, theatres must connect with the communities they are trying to represent, cultivate talent, and create a pipeline for sustainable growth within the SWANA community.

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Goodman Theatre’s 2023 production of “Layalina” by Martin Yousif Zebari.

Better SWANA Futures

What reignites these issues for us is the excitement around new SWANA stories that resist such Orientalist traps and, in the words of Sahar Assaf, do not “try to explain ‘us’” to non-SWANA audiences. As plays like Sanaz Toossi’s English, the first SWANA play to receive a Pulitzer in 2023, are produced on stages across the country, there is an opportunity to right the wrongs of past attempts to tell SWANA stories with deeper authenticity. For instance, English, recently produced at the Goodman Theatre (next traveling to the Guthrie Theater), demonstrates hopeful progress in its legacy of SWANA representation. At this same Chicago theatre, in 2017 Rohina Malik’s Yasmina’s Necklace had a non-SWANA playwright and director choosing an Americanized pronunciation for the lead character’s name; then, in 2023, Martin Yousif Zebari’s Layalina had a SWANA-led directing team and SWANA-majority creative team (including a co-author of this piece, Mikhaiel, as dramaturg); and recently English, which has an Iranian director, principal cast, dramaturg (Mikhaiel again), and costume designer. 

English has seemingly maintained its cultural integrity throughout its many productions by including Iranian principal casts and predominantly Iranian or SWANA directors. We believe the gap between what has always been the industry standard and the new pathway English is carving signals a shift not only in the SWANA stories we tell—it also points to a change in the ways we tell them and who gets a seat at the table. Sahar affirms that the “tide shifting” in what narratives are getting produced is “definitely there, which is another opportunity for us to keep pushing.” 

While we honor and build on the work of previous generations dedicated to promoting SWANA cultures in the American theatre, we must recognize the complexity and diversity of SWANA stories and identities and acknowledge that the change will start from within our own community, on interpersonal and institutional levels. 

We offer the following solutions as part of the ongoing conversation around better SWANA representation:

  • Interrogate unconscious biases beyond training. Prioritize narratives that decenter stereotypical depictions and terrorist themes and refuse to define the SWANA region and its cultures merely on tragic terms. This does not mean that artists should be limited in terms of their writing; instead, decision-makers should diversify their choice of SWANA plays in conversation with their production history and the monolithic SWANA stories that have dominated American theatre thus far. 
  • Center narratives from outside the U.S. Ali-Reza Mirsajadi notes that centering narratives from outside the country and from outside the English language could render more diverse stories from the SWANA region. Dedication to translating new work could share “truth and sincerity about what life is like in Lebanon and Iran and Gaza, etc.,” in an effort to amplify more stories from SWANA-born playwrights.
  • Cultivate identity-conscious practices and cast with cultural competency. These practices should exist throughout the process of casting actors and hiring designers. Cultural consultants are most effective when they are listened to, with teams able to gain insight into the complexity of SWANA identities, cultures, and histories. In reflecting on process, Yeghiazarian expressed that being the “only” in the room is isolating and makes some decisions much tougher. There are a multiplicity of SWANA identities across the world, and even two artists with the same background can have differing experiences.
  • Cultivate talent and create a pipeline. In Casting a Movement: The Welcome Table Initiative, director and dramaturg Courtney Elkin Mohler points to a model used by Native Voices at the Autry to address the “pipeline problem,” in which an organization creates an incubator or a culturally immersive space that gives young Native artists “resources to develop their artistic energies within a company system that intentionally uses and resists the industry’s dominant culture.” There is such valuable training experience even in short readings or workshops wherein the same actors can be treated like cohorts working on multiple stories. We follow Mohler’s assertion that investing in artists—SWANA artists in this case—on every level of production is essential to moving the entire conversation around inclusion forward. 
  • Connect with the communities you are trying to represent. When asked what we can do as theatre artists to get SWANA communities to engage with theatre more, Sahar Assaf asserted that one way to break down cultural barriers is to make “theatre with and by them. I’m interested in devised process. I’m interested in not only thinking of them as consumers of our art, but also participants in our art—like, how can we get them to be with us, to experience the process and share their stories? I think the more we can do that, the more involved they would be, because they would be interested to come see a work that they participated in.” This way we can plant the seed for future generations of artists, work toward art-making as a culturally accepted career option, and connect with our communities on a deeper level.
  • Invest in and expand training for SWANA artists. Assaf mentioned, in the case of Golden Thread’s recent production Drowning in Cairo, that it cost an extra $20,000 to fly in actors from out of the city—necessary but difficult for a small SWANA theatre company. Given that such practices may not always be sustainable, we think it’s necessary to shift the industry’s perspective from the limiting belief that a BFA/MFA in Acting is more valuable and trains actors better than informal or trade-school training. For instance, professional training centers exist in major cities, like Black Box Acting, and have proven to turn community members into professional actors with a tangible process in three months. A former middle school teacher in Chicago, Yuchi Chui, is now working as an actor in L.A. after professional trade school training. 
  • Commit to finding and hiring SWANA artists. We must release the internalized belief that there are “not enough” actors when there are more databases (MAAC, BIPOC arts, MENA Theatre Artists, Chi Artist Minority Actor Database, to name a few.), artist organizations, and advocacy groups for SWANA actors (and directors and designers) than ever before.
  • Work in true solidarity with fellow BIPOC artists. While we acknowledge that navigating race as part of your job can be complex and nuanced for performers, particularly those with multicultural heritage, we also recognize the circumstances in which they are quite clear. Actors who are not of the SWANA diaspora must give the same solidarity given to Asian, Latinx, and Black theatre communities, who set this precedent years prior and refuse to audition for roles written for a community they are not a part of. There is no longer room for blackface, yellowface, or brownface in our industry.
  • Be open to a paradigm shift. Allow a variety of SWANA perspectives to exist and for the next generation of leaders to challenge what has always been the norm. After all, we are all working toward the same shared goal of a better future for the SWANA communities in American theatre. 
  • Make space for new narratives and new tools. As Audre Lorde said in her famous essay, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” We can not continue to do what we have always done and expect progress. It is time for the same standards of anti-racist representation applied to other communities to be applied to SWANA stories as well.

Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel (she/they) is a Chicago-based dramaturg, arts journalist, and adjunct professor. Learn more at and follow them on Twitter @yasminzacaria, a.k.a. dramaturgically it tracks.

Aycan Akçamete is an Assistant Professor of Performance Studies at the University of Oregon. Alongside her scholarly pursuits, she works as a freelance dramaturg. 

Arti Ishak (they/them) is a Chicago-based actor, director, writer, and educator working in Theatre/TV/Film. Learn more at or follow their work on socials @artiishak.

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