City Speaks: Working with a Cultural Consultant on We Are Among Us

May 7th, 2019 / Posted in Uncategorized

City Speaks: Working with a Cultural Consultant on We Are Among Us

By Kristina Bylancik, Literary Intern

Stephen Belber’s new play We Are Among Us, beginning performances at City Theatre on May 11th, follows Laura, a military contractor working to reestablish herself after her time in Afghanistan. Investigative journalist Shar challenges this when she arrives, dredging up buried stories from Laura’s time overseas. In doing so, Shar drags Afghan immigrant Khadija into the mix while trying to confirm her suspicions of what really may have happened to Khadija’s father when he was brought in for questioning by the U.S. military.

By investigating what can happen in a warzone and Khadija’s experiences in America, this play brings with it the chance to also examine Afghan cultural intricacies that a Pittsburgh audience might not be immediately familiar with. In order to ensure that these were handled carefully and that the play itself was representing Afghanistan and Khadija’s experience accurately, We Are Among Us brought on a cultural consultant for the duration of the development and rehearsal process. City Theatre reached out to Literacy Pittsburgh through the City Connects Initiative to find someone who could fill this role. Through Literary Pittsburgh, City was put in touch with the Pittsburgh branch of No One Left Behind, an organization that helps Afghan and Iraqi combat allies resettle safely in the United States. Through this, City was connected with Noorulhaq Fazly. Noorulhaq was born and raised in Herat, Afghanistan. He earned a law degree from Herat University and worked for several years with the United States government, focusing on human rights. He moved to Pittsburgh with his family in 2016 and has since been working on a degree in Computer Science.

Noorulhaq’s work on the production began several months ago when he was invited to a workshop of the play hosted at City in December. There, he provided preliminary feedback and commented on the script as it currently stood. Following this, he shared notes with director of New Play Development Clare Drobot, director Adrienne Campbell-Holt, and playwright Stephen Belber. These notes included any cultural issues that Noorulhaq had identified within the script or other inaccuracies he noticed. Noorulhaq also spoke with Costume Designer Sarita Fellows about her design decisions. This began a collaborative, open relationship in which Noorulhaq was regularly invited to provide his feedback on how Afghanistan and the Afghan people were being represented in the play.

Since those initial meetings, Noorulhaq has been in the rehearsal room frequently, particularly whenever Stephen has new pages relevant to Noorulhaq’s personal expertise. When questions arise, the room often turns to Noorulhaq to have him explain how a situation would play out in Afghanistan. These questions often revolve around interpersonal relationships within an Afghan family or between an individual and the world around them. One area in particular that Noorulhaq has been especially helpful with is in explaining how Khadija and her neighbors would view the Taliban activity in their village and how that might impact their relationship with American forces. Noorulhaq’s illumination of this area led playwright Stephen Belber to make an adjustment to the script that now gives the audience a more accurate representation of the world that Khadija, and other Afghan people, come from.

Noorulhaq had not served as a cultural consultant for a production before this, but it is clear to him and everyone in the room that his perspective and advice are truly indispensable. Having someone from the specific region depicted in the play allowed the production team to more deeply explore, and more accurately portray, the characters and their lived experiences. Without this, the production team would be left to do research on their own, and this often depends on unreliable sources. I had the chance to speak with Noorulhaq and he shared why he feels the role of a cultural consultant is so essential, “I think that that’s the key, to have somebody from that region… otherwise, you are depending on online research and online media and Youtube that are not really realistic. They do not show the true culture. The most important thing is, if you have somebody from that region, it helps a lot avoid any cultural mistakes that may be exposed.” These “cultural mistakes” can be things like how a character feels, how they are behaving or speaking, and general information about how this world functions.

This play shows an important, new perspective on the Afghan experience during the war and it is important not only for the Pittsburgh community, but all United States communities to hear. In our interview, Noorulhaq highlighted the prevalence of Afghanistan’s presence in the U.S. media cycle: “Afghanistan, in 2001, appeared every day on the magazine headlines in the United States. If it wasn’t every day, it was every other day, and people talking, and some people have a misunderstanding about the situation. They think that the Afghans were having the Taliban or bad guys continue the war.” This dangerous misunderstanding has led to “a reduction of the people and the country.” It was not until later, as Noorulhaq explained, that people came to understand that the Afghan people were not responsible for the actions of the Taliban, but rather that they too were victims of Taliban attacks, a story that We Are Among Us helps to tell.

Noorulhaq hopes that this production will open up more honest conversations about the reality that many Afghan civilians faced during the war and the struggles they continue to face as refugees in the United States, “As much as [Americans] know about the cultural features, you know, Americans know about Afghan culture, people, and their tradition, that helps the Afghan community to adjust better, to make friends, to live peacefully, to not be afraid of each other.” Although this play only focuses on the life of one woman in Afghanistan and her immigration to the United States, it gives the audience the chance to identify with the Afghan civilian and immigrant experience. We Are Among Us shows us that we need to reach out and communicate with one another so that we can better understand each other’s stories and experiences. It gives us an opportunity to look beyond the harmful stereotypes perpetuated often by the United States media and better understand the human experience and the true toll of conflict.

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