There is a Portal is a new work exploring the impact of post-9/11 legislation, the rise of Islamophobia, and present-day scapegoating on Arab, South Asian and Muslim Americans. This personal meditation will focus on communities experiencing the trauma of being banned and facing detention and deportation, while adding interactive technology and multi-media elements to heighten the audience’s participation in the stories unfolding around them. The show offers a collection of insights and perspectives for anyone seeking to survive and combat the culture of fear, and asks the questions: what happens when deceit and suspicion are allowed to permeate the fabric of our society and embed into the weave? How does that affect our behavior and who we become, individually and as a society?
Media messages, national policies and anti-terror initiatives have created a haze of confusion, misinformation and anxiety. In this culture of fear, we are told that our safety and comfort, as individuals and as a nation, lie in giving up our civil liberties, dulling our critical senses and accepting unjust laws. Our traditional civic spaces are narrowing exponentially, and we need to cultivate alternative spaces for reflection, dialogue, and mobilization. I believe theater can cultivate such spaces through smart and insightful performances coupled with thoughtful audience engagement. It can bring audiences closer to the issues at hand, and make room to for us to rehearse who we want to become, individually and as a society.
THERE IS A PORTAL
By: Kayhan Irani
PROLOGUE – The Nature of the Box
It is best if the room is very small. So the audience is close to one another and also close to the performance area. In the performance area, four mylar panels make up the walls of the box. Three surrounding a chair and side table with some props, open to the audience. There is one panel above the playing space, slanted down. Panels can be projected on, but can also become transparent when illuminated from within, to see the character inside.
The nature of the “walls” is fluid. Sometimes they restrict and pen the character in, sometimes they reveal her private, intimate activities inside, sometimes they protect her from what’s outside and sometimes they mirror and amplify what’s happening outside. The box and the walls are also a metaphorical barrier/membrane of our mediated lives. How we are not fully in touch and connected to what we are watching and observing through a million digital eyes. The multiple lenses we can now see through also filter, morph, and skew what we see.
Different colored lights flicker on and off. We hear the sounds of an airplane taxi-ing and increasing in speed morphs into sound of water flowing. Visual of monochrome colors swirling, rippling and flowing.
Sound of water intensifies, from flowing to rushing, to almost a waterfall. Transforms into the sound of motor. Visual of colors morph into visuals of sky, air, clouds.
The roar transforms into a thud. Video of Dust, Sand, Puffs of smoke, grainy bits.
Lights shift to Projection starts. It is a black screen with the glowing green cursor of old word processing programs blinking patiently. It is the coding and hacking platform of the digital surveillance world. Used by governments, rogue actors, scammers and curious teenagers equally. Type appears. Audience only sees the text. The identification of ONE and TWO are to clarify which of the unidentifiable hackers is typing.
Cursor stops and blinks in place. A second cursor appears underneath the present line, indented.
Portal open. Devices engaged.
The cursor blinks repeatedly.
Maintain communication until National Preservation and Purity analysis is complete.
Cursor blinks. Typing continues:
Extraction of digital materials complete, files rendering.
Cursor blinks a few times.
Sending files for analysis.
The familiar upload bar appears and the color fills from left to right, indicating the upload is done. The files automatically open in rapid fire on the screen. We linger on some longer than others. These photos turn red and across the bottom is written either “SUSPECT” or “IMPURE” in white block letters. The files we see are a mix of images, text, documents, etc. A typical mix of files that a young woman in her late 20s would have on a computer and phone.
Random and personal, we see images of:
— friends and family
— three men in skull caps, with different forms of facial hair and long tunics have their arms around each other, smiling. That image turns red and “SUSPECT” is written across it.
— funny gifs,
— cat photos,
— images of the character at celebrations, another where she’s in a bikini standing on the beach with girlfriends. This photo turns red and across it is written “IMPURE”.
The montage ends with video in real time of the audience watching the stage. A square, like a facial recognition scanner, floats above various people’s heads and frames them. It randomly flashes red.
Blackout. Character enters in dark.
Lights up. Character is standing in the corner with shaving cream on his face, in profile. He is dressed in a white tank top and a sarong wrapped around his waist. Next to him is a small table and chair. On the table is a bowl with water. A shaving razor sits next to it. A towel is draped over his arm. He examines his face in a mirror that isn’t there, picks up the razor, and starts shaving. Character talks and shaves.
(In Desi accent)
Kayhan, you can’t be too careful. At the end of the day, what is it? Hair. I shave it for fashion don’t I? So, I can shave it for peace of mind. I know I’m innocent. I haven’t done anything. So, why should I get looks … get mistreated? … They look at you and say, oh, he must be from this place, they think these kinds of things … backwards, all of them.
… Then if you ignore and don’t say anything they’ll say, see, it’s true. He can’t say anything. … If you speak up, and defend yourself or point out their ignorance they say, oh you see. He’s angry, he knows it’s true. … Either way, I lose. … Thirty eight years in this country … I’m a foreigner again. … Khalas, it’s done. I have peace.
Character wipes face with towel puts the razor into the bowl and lays the towel down. One of the panels slowly turns red. Another shows vertical black lines, like bars on a prison door. Character takes a blouse from the chair and puts it on over the tank top. Then, she takes her sarong off and drapes it on the chair. She turns to address the audience as she speaks.
I wrote this play in 2001. It was the only thing I knew how to do. Yes, I was frightened. Not by the “monsters” that they told us were waiting at the gates, nor by the communists they warned us about at the peace marches … No, it was the little, everyday shifts that cut deepest. For example, an uncle at my temple told me that the security guard in his office building started paying special attention to him. I asked him what was special about this attention. He said after seven years of saying hello and meeting his gaze, there was now a barbed wire fence around their greeting. Something he couldn’t get near.
And, he said, it wasn’t just that this fence was there, but that each day it seemed like the fence was coming closer and closer, encircling him. He said he couldn’t bear it anymore. Having to pry himself free of their greeting each morning. … Have you ever had to do that? Dance around some kind of menacing invisible force? Dance so that you don’t get trapped?
Character moves in a strange tai chi/butoh dance. [SOUND/VIDEO … something glitchy]
She picks up the sarong from the chair and wraps it around her head like a hijab and keeps moving in her dance.
What’s that look for? Didn’t you expect this? You know where you are. … Oh I see. You want to remember the good times. When we were carefree. That’s not something I can go back to, obviously. …
Why do you insist I can? Positive thinking isn’t going to make me into something else. … You think I want to be here? If you believe it’s my fault then you can wash your hands of any responsibility, no? Who built this wall? … Look at me! It’s 16 years later. What are you afraid of? Are you still afraid of me? … It’s okay. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t feel bad.
I’m being an ass. I know. I’m provoking you. Have you done something wrong? If you’re not guilty of any wrongdoing then you have nothing to hide. Right? Keep those corners and crevices of your mind clean … just in case someone comes looking for something dark. Some doubt you have some impure thought. … Look at me. I’m not hiding. I can’t run away. You can watch me shower and shave and eat and read and you can listen in on my conversations. But you still claim to be scared of me. That this is for my best. Stay for a moment. Here. With me. On my side of the fence. Let’s go back together.
She moves and sits in the chair, her back to audience, stares at wall. Images appear on wall as she talks.
After the buildings fell … everything around me changed. Suddenly, my presence made friends, neighbors, even random people on the subway, slightly uncomfortable. I started to become aware of my hands, my skin, my bag, my clothes.
Character slowly stands and follows the images dancing on the screen in a strange shadow dance with a blurry shape on the screen. The blur disintegrates into smoke and dust and we hear a thud. Woman’s back is flattened to the wall.
On that day, none of us could fathom what we would be forced to witness. We were all crushed, our hopes, our ideas of this world … pulverized. … And the dust everywhere. It covered everything and everyone. You remember?
Character picks up an umbrella sitting in the corner. She opens it and it’s tattered. Dust flies off of it and the shredded fabric hangs around it along with yellow strips of police caution tape. She walks around with it, holding it over the audience, moving as if dancing a slow Brazilian Frevo dance.
Eat and everything will be normal.
… Eat the dust. Take it in. Remind yourself of what life is made of. It hurts. You can’t escape. … The dust got under my skin. You couldn’t just brush it off or wash it away. It embedded itself. Like tiny little shards were piercing deeper into my body. I think those little shards of dust are still in here somewhere. I wonder if someday one of them will reach my heart and sever an artery?.. It was months before parts of me felt normal. …
Nothing else around me felt normal ever again.