UMass Amherst Theater Student's Search for Islamic Plays Spawns New York Theater Festival

AMHERST, Mass. - The works of several women playwrights from Muslim cultures will debut at a New York festival of plays this month organized by University of Massachusetts theater student Lucinda Kidder.

Kidder, a master''s of fine arts candidate in directing who has worked in and taught theater for many years, has spent the last year collecting theatrical works by women who have been influenced by Muslim cultures around the world. The New York festival is an outgrowth of her ongoing anthology project and will showcase some of the plays for the first time in the United States.

The festival, titled, "Unexpected Journeys: Plays by Women Influenced by Muslim Cultures," will be held Jan. 10-27 at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum Theater at 97 Orchard St. in New York City. The project is being funded by the museum, along with the Immigrants'' Theatre Project, the Kazbah Project, and the Theatre at New Dramatists.

Kidder said the voices of female playwrights influenced by Muslim cultures have rarely been heard in American theater, despite a recent influx of dramatic literature from other parts of the world. "Eastern Europe, Latin America, and southern Africa have proved to be fertile sources for exciting new plays in America, but little is known about experimental theater in the Middle East and other predominantly Islamic areas. Still less often heard are the voices of the female writers in these areas," Kidder said.

Last spring, Kidder launched a search for works by Islamic women playwrights after directing at UMass the first English-language production and American premiere of House of Wives, a critique of traditional rural Algerian culture by French-Algerian playwright Fatima Gallaire. Out of frustration at being unable to locate other material by female writers in Muslim cultures, Kidder collaborated with Roberta Uno, founder of the New WORLD Theater at UMass, to research likely contacts for women artists, and sent out a call for plays.

The events of Sept. 11 and the aftermath have generated even greater interest in the project, Kidder said. She expanded her initial search for plays by Islamic women to include works by any women influenced by Muslim cultures. "With recent events prompting Americans to take a closer look at Islam and its peoples, it is not surprising that interest in the project has increased tremendously," Kidder said.

Kidder added that the works she has collected are varied in subject matter and do not necessarily address the topics that audiences might expect. "This is not stereotypical material. We want to destroy stereotypes of what women in these cultures think about," Kidder said.

The festival features showcase productions of two new works. Showcase productions, Kidder explains, are scaled-down productions of plays that will include sets, lighting, and professional actors. Kidder will direct the showcase production of The Bermuda Triangle, by Nora Amin, an Egyptian experimental theater artist whose trip to New York is being funded by the Cultural Affairs Office of the American Embassy in Cairo. A second showcase, Cracking Mud is Pinching Me by Palestinian-Australian author Haya Husseini, will be directed by Marcy Arlin, founder and director of the Immigrants'' Theater Project. In addition, five new plays will be read: The Boat People by Egyptian playwright Nahed Nayla Naguid; Portrait of a Marriage by Fatma Durmush, a Kurdish immigrant in London; The Black-Eyed, by Betty Shamieh, a Palestinian-American playwright and Van Lier Fellow at the Theatre at New Dramatists; Abaga by Iranian-American playwright Torange Yeghiazarian; and Edewede by Juliana Okoh of Nigeria, a Fulbright scholar who recently completed a year''s study at Smith College. With the exception of Abaga, which premiered last fall at the Golden Threads Theater in Oakland, Calif., none of the plays has been performed in the United States.

As part of the festival, Kidder will moderate a panel discussion titled, "Theatre as a Method for Re-examining Women''s Roles in Muslim Cultures," on Jan. 26 at the Theatre at New Dramatists, 424 W. 44th St., New York. The panel includes Marvin Carlson, Sidney Cohn Distinguished Professor of Theater and Comparative Literature at the graduate center at City University of New York; Dina Amin, visiting professor of Middle Eastern Theater at Barnard College; Jamal J. Elias, professor of religion at Amherst College; Kia Corthun, a playwright whose newest work Breath, Boom, was just published in American Theater, a New York-based theater magazine; and Dahlia Sabbour, an Egyptian actress.

Lucinda Kidder can be reached in New York until Jan. 12 at 212/566-8601 (mornings only), or leave a message at 917/297-4934. After Jan. 12, Kidder can be reached at 413/545-6818 (o), 413/498-2210 (h), or