Shortly before rehearsals began, Rohina Malik spoke with dramaturg Dana Lynn Formby about her inspiration for Yasmina’s Necklace and her journey as a playwright.
Dana Lynn Formby: What inspired this play?
Rohina Malik: It started with a necklace. My friend told me about a cashier he saw at a grocery store. She wore a necklace that had a pendant cut in the shape of Iraq, with the country’s name in the center. This was when the U.S. was at war with Iraq, so to wear that at that time…something about hearing this really resonated with me. People can forget that other people have a love for their homelands that goes beyond politics. So, I began thinking about this woman and her necklace—and that’s how Yasmina was born. At the same time, I also noticed so many Muslim men were changing their names due to anti-Muslim bias, which disturbed me. I also thought about my friend who is a Latina Muslim from Puerto Rico and her husband is Arab. They are so hilarious and don’t have children but I thought, what would their child be like? If they had a son, who would he be? He’d be half Puerto Rican, half Arab, born and raised in America. That’s how the character Sam was born. Then I thought, what would happen if Yasmina met Sam?
DLF: Can you talk about why diversity and representation is important in your work?
RM: I’m really concerned about the portrayal of Muslims in our media. Often with our television shows and films, roles that are written about Muslims are often written by people who are not Muslim, and they fall into problematic stereotypes. It concerns me to see Muslims frequent represented as the villain, the terrorist, somebody who’s plotting something evil. Rarely do we see Muslims as normal human beings, and that’s so dangerous. When I was writing my play Unveiled, I conducted a lot of research on hate crimes and found they never begin with the weapon—gun, knife, bat. It begins with an atmosphere of negative stereotyping and degrading language—and when those two things are left unchallenged, the result can be murder. I find that so frightening. So when we are bombarded by images of Muslims in this stereotypical way, it’s dangerous and important that I, as a Muslim playwright, can tell stories where Muslims are just normal people like everybody else. I’m hoping that things begin to change with time, and we can see more Muslims or folks from Arab-descent, Middle-Eastern descent, South Asia, able to tell their own stories.
DLF: You and Ann Filmer, the artistic director of 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, have worked together a few times over the past years. Why does she make for such a wonderful collaborator?
RM: I went to see a show at 16th Street Theater and loved that their mission was to tell the stories of all the different people representative of the community. You don’t see that everywhere. Ann took a chance on my play Unveiled; she produced a show I wrote and performed when I had no resumé. She’s the kind of artist who takes chances on people. She was talking about diversity when it was not the cool thing to be talking about. And she wasn’t just talking about it, she was implementing it. I love and appreciate that.
DLF: It was at a performance of Unveiled where you met Tanya Palmer, the Goodman’s director of new play development, right?
RM: Yes, Tanya came to see Unveiled and I told her about Yasmina’s Necklace. She read it and chose to include a staged reading of it at the Goodman’s New Stages Festival in 2009, which was directed by Henry Godinez. And after that, I received my first commission to write a RM: I can’t stress enough the importance of arts education. When we hear people talk about cutting the arts because they think math and science are more important than the arts, they are wrong. The arts connect us to our humanity, and that’s something that cannot be void in our education. We need arts education. For me, I was a young woman, and I came to the Goodman and saw Three Sisters, a play that I had been studying. I remember, when the curtain rose and we saw that set, where even the curtains were moving from a gentle breeze, the whole audience broke into applause and I had never seen anything like that before. And it has stayed with me. The fact that today, in 2017, my play is being produced at the Goodman, it’s just kind of come full circle for me. It’s such a dream come true, and I’m so grateful.
Buy tickets and learn more about Yasmina’s Necklace here. Tickets start at just $10!