In June 2016, 49 people were killed at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida by Omar Mateen. This club was considered a haven for the LGBTQ community, especially for LGBTQ people of color. The shooting proved the lethalness of anti-LGBTQ sentiment. After Orlando is an artistic response to the shooting, using theatre to commemorate the lives of the victims. It is an expressive endeavor, a way to collectively mourn. The night consists of a series of 13 plays written by playwrights from all over the world. It has been performed all over the United States. The plays honor the culture of dance in Latinx communities, celebrate the lives of the LGBTQ community, and grapple with the horror of that night.
In January, I performed in After Orlando in Phoenix, Arizona. Each play was prepared by a different organization. All actors were seated on stage facing the audience, and we took turns performing our pieces. The plays vary in the range of topics they cover. One play in particular includes a reading of the names of the victims. The list is haunting, impactful; as the actors read the names, I wondered when the list would end. It came as a jolt.
It was particularly difficult to balance my emotional reaction to the other plays with the fact that I needed to perform as well. Stepping in and out of character was difficult. I had a hard time shaking the emotions that arose. It was difficult returning to the onstage audience, an exercise in giving and receiving. Grieving together with so many people felt both vulnerable and powerful.
I played the character of a Muslim mother in a play called At The Store With My Daughter organized by The Bridge Initiative, a local nonprofit dedicated to addressing gender disparity in theatre and the arts. While in line at the grocery store, my character is harassed by a man who accuses her of being a terrorist. “ISIS!” he warns; in our rendition he picks up her arm and displays her to the audience. “I stand with Orlando,” he says. “I stand with Orlando too,” she replies, heartbroken that he would align her and her religion with such violence. She tries to defend herself, but he refuses to listen. No one speaks up on her behalf so she leaves, defeated.
I was fortunate enough to be able to interview the author of At The Store With My Daughter, Rohina Malik. I asked her what inspired her to write this play. When Malik was asked to respond to the Orlando shooting, she decided “to focus on those who get blamed for Omar Mateen’s actions.” I wondered what made theatre an effective venue for such a story versus a novel or a movie. Malik responded by focusing on the live quality of theatre. “The actors and audience, sharing an experience all at the same time, that’s powerful.” Currently on a personal journey with this myself, I asked her for her thoughts about theatre as a catalyst for social justice. Malik had a nuanced response to this. “Theater is an art that has no limits. You can tell any story, any way you like. I have used theater to get people to think about social justice, but to also feel. That’s what theater does best, it impacts your heart.”
Malik’s play rings true. The story is too familiar to me. My mother has been verbally harassed in stores, brought to tears by a shopper yelling at her to go back to her country, accusing her of terrorism. This even before she began to wear her headscarf. And the twofold experience after a tragedy—mourning the victims and dreading the backlash attacks. I am caught in this trap, equal parts horrified at the news of a shooting and fearful of being targeted if the shooter has a Muslim name. There’s no way to turn. Shoved into a box labeled ‘terrorist.’ Fearing the consequences of that despised label.
Because terrorists have no sides. They attack their own countrymen in a heartbeat as easily as they would the “West.” In February, 90 people were killed by a suicide bomber in Sindh, Pakistan during a Sufi Muslim ceremony at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. Last August, around 60 lawyers and journalists were bombed and killed at a civil hospital in Quetta Town, Pakistan. In December 2014, 145 schoolchildren and teachers were killed in Peshawar. We are plagued. And this is just one example, there are so many countries suffering.
So you know what it is? It’s insulting. It’s just insulting. To read about terrorist attacks in Pakistan. To worry about your extended family, to read about anti-terrorism efforts by the Pakistani government, to say a prayer. And then to turn around and read articles and watch the news cycle from your home the United States connecting you with that same terrorism, asking you to answer for it, for the very acts you are still reeling from reading about. Telling you to leave. As if I’m not as angry, if not angrier about terrorism than the average person. As if I have no right to mourn.
I conclude by returning to a very personal reaction to the Pulse Nightclub shooting. When the news broke, I became plastered to my bed, unable to move. I read through the many posts by LGBTQ communities simultaneously mourning and calling for the shooting not to become an excuse to target Muslim communities.
I tried to pray silently but I couldn’t be quiet. On an impulse, I picked up my phone to record my thoughts, adding to the voice journal I keep. I needed to speak out loud, give voice to the pain. I debated simply transcribing them here, these messy, incoherent thoughts, these pleas. But as hard as it is, I think I need to share the raw, weeping self such violence turns me into, and it feels most authentic to share the recording unedited. This was my prayer. With this, I claim my right to mourn.
Allah, why are we so sick?
Why do people think that they can just kill people?
Please cure us of these sicknesses
Please cure us all
Of thinking that
Of thinking that people can just take up guns and kill people
No one has the right
Please help us
You’re the only one
Please help us
I’m so sick and tired of all this
I can’t take another news of a mass shooting
I don’t know what else to say
Ya Raheemo [O Merciful One]