Election Section

Play Explores Post-9/11 Tensions in Family Portrait By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday July 08, 2005

The Domestic Crusaders, a new play by Bay Area-native Wajahat Ali about the reactions of three generations of a Pakistani-American family in the wake of 9/11, will be staged for three performances only, July 15 and 16, at the Thrust Stage of Berkeley Repertory Theater. 

Presented by Oakland’s Before Columbus Foundation, and produced by celebrated author and Before Columbus co-founder Ishmael Reed, The Domestic Crusaders is directed by Carla Blank and features a cast of South Asian actors from the Bay Area. 

The play originated when Ali was a UC Berkeley student in a writing class that Reed was teaching in 2001. 

“After Sept. 11, he disappeared for awhile,” Reed recalls. “There was hazing of Middle Easterners on campus, a bad atmosphere.” 

The Domestic Crusaders started out as a 20-page short story assignment in the class. 

“I asked him to turn the story into a play,” Reed said. “He has a magnificent ear for dialogue. He’s right up there with the best, in terms of family drama. ... A major new voice.” 

Ali said of his play, “I wanted to make something extraordinary out of the ordinary. Not an ethnocentric play that would exclude everyone else, but something in which those who see it would recognize aspects of their own family in a culture they’d never seen anything about before. The familiar in the unfamiliar. And hear what everybody’s got on the tip of their tongue, but doesn’t want to say.”  

Reed touts Ali’s play as “something all could relate to—Irish-American, African-American—but it’s not comfort food theater.” 

All the characters in the play have different sympathies, and different ways of analyzing the situation, he said. 

“The younger immigrant generation, like in all immigrant families, resists the language, the old culture, the food,” Reed said. “They’re on the way to becoming a classic American family. And they have a few secrets, like any family in any ethnic group. ... It’s finally optimistic and sprinkled with humor. There were waves and waves of laughter at the staged readings we had in Newark. There’s satire about the software industry and the media—and the family’s own prejudices, getting indignant over being mistaken for Afghanis! It’s kitchen drama, and brilliant, taking people back to their roots, where they’re coming from.”  

Wajahat Ali wrily recalls Reed referring to the “Muslim-bashing” of post-9/11 as “one man’s getting pummelled in the ring, and the referee’s not stopping the fight.” 

Going on about the “bunch of hustlers” who have made this “a very prolific industry,” Ali mentions Pat Robertson, who on his website “is adamant in his belief that Muslims worship some sort of moon god.” Ali decries the “cookie cutter allegories” of a “Hollywood unable to portray the spiritual lives of Americans” and “the media’s horrible job of conveying world religions, much less different cultures in America.” 

But talking about immigrant families, Ali notes: “Second-generation South Asians don’t know much about their families’ culture. They have to prod the older people, who often don’t want to talk. They’ve seen too many horrible things. The kids, then, are often embarrassed, don’t want to speak—then later ask their second-generation parents, ‘Why didn’t you teach us?’”  

Director Carla Blank recalls the actor who plays the father, Shahab Riazi, “who’s a little bit young for the part, saying ‘This is like a cautionary tale for me,’ warning him of what he might become. At the staged readings, his mother was telling people, ‘My son isn’t really like that!’” 

The cast includes two non-Muslim South Asian actresses, Nidhi Singh and Vidhu Singh, as well as Sadiyah Shaikh, and Saquib Mausoof as the grandfather. 

“The cast was very generous in educating me about their culture,” Blank said. “Together, we figured out the most honest way to present this material at the staged readings last year. At the Mehran Restaurant Theatre in Newark, we had somewhere between 300 to 400 people—and turned half that many away. The South Asian community really got the word out—and seemed amazed at how well Wajahat captured the different generations onstage.” 

Mehran Restaurant is providing Pakistani delicacies as part of the admission price for the show at the Thrust Stage. 

Other readings of the play were staged at last year’s Arts and Soul Festival in Oakland, and in the auditorium of the Main Branch of the Oakland Public Library. The Before Columbus Foundation is presenting this showcase of The Domestic Crusaders as part of its mission to promote contemporary multicultural literature. 

Ali, now a law student at UC Davis, is writing a “sequel/prequel” that will place The Domestic Crusaders in a trilogy, taking the family that debates 9/11 from the Partition of Pakistan and India in 1947 to the present. His background, both from Pakistan and in America, gives him direction, he said. 

“In old Middle Eastern culture, a storyteller was more valued than a swordsman,” Ali said. “He gave their history to the people of the tribes. Translate that onto stage with a couple of other people, it’s a play, but still storytelling. I know exactly where I want to go, but I don’t rush it; I let the characters speak for themselves. They’re not just mouthpieces to move the plot along.” 


The Domestic Crusaders plays at 8 p.m. Friday, July 15 and at 2 and 8 p.m. July 16. Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison St. $20-$35. For more information call 647-2900 or see www.domesticcrusaders.com.