Point of view from a Muslim Improvisor
"But what happens when one’s tool for overcoming prejudice and disempowerment becomes the same tool with which that prejudice is inflicted? "
There it is, that snickering I know all too well. I’m riding the “L” train in my flowing, black hijab (head scarf) and a group of teenagers yell out, “Hey Darth Vader!” Like any good improviser I breathe dramatically into my hands and bellow back “Luke I am your father.”
They say laughter and stress cannot occupy the brain at the same time, but as a Muslim woman struggling to manage the increasing anxiety caused by our current political climate, I disagree.
My fear and laughter often coalesce, as comedy is my means of survival.
As a visibly Muslim woman, wearing the hijab adds an interesting twist to my day-to-day experience.
And by interesting I often mean terrifying and exhausting.
Thankfully, my parents raised me to face struggle with humor, and my life-long obsession with comedy has helped me endure the painful blows of ignorance and hate that have become a daily reality for Muslims in this country.
But what happens when one’s tool for overcoming prejudice and disempowerment becomes the same tool with which that prejudice is inflicted?
This is the question I have been struggling to answer as a Muslim woman in the improv community. I still remember looking around the room during through my first improv class and realizing, “I’ve finally found them, these are my people.”
But a year and a half later I still find myself having to work extra hard to convince fellow improvisers that although I may look different, I am your people too.
As improvisers we cannot rely on costumes, props, or scripts to create our art, instead we rely on our empathy and ability to form an instantaneous relationship with whoever happens to meet us out on that stage.
If improvisers can’t use those skills to make our community a safe and supportive space for people of all backgrounds, identities, and orientations, then I don’t know who can. Our art has already given us the tools we need, and
it’s time we start acting like improvisers and say “Yes, And” to everyone brave enough to get up on stage.
I am grateful for the teachers and directors who make a conscious choice to infuse these principles not only in their own performances, but in their teaching and casting efforts as well. I was recently placed on a team that includes improvisers of Hindu, Jewish, Atheist, Muslim, Catholic, and Mormon backgrounds, and I truly believe we are funnier for it.
Like the jester and the king, comedy has always been one of the few ways to speak truth to power, and as I grow into my identity as a Muslim woman, improv has been one of my biggest tools for self-empowerment. When surrounded by supportive players I no longer feel defined or limited by other people’s judgment. I feel free to morph and transform into characters the world would never believe a covered Muslim woman could embody.
This past summer I headed into The Second City lobby after a show with an incredibly talented and diverse group of improvisers. One of my cast members pulled me aside and told me that an audience member confessed to her, “When I saw that girl with the scarf on her head, I thought it would be too distracting, but by the end of the set I forgot it was even there!” That is the power of improv, and that is why I continue to play.
Live - Laugh - Love.
As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”
Thank you for reading.
Laura Bowers is a social worker and educator who uses improv as a tool for understanding and promoting mental health. As a student and performer of Chicago's improv community, she enjoys sharing her unique voice as a Muslim American woman with the comedy world.
Laura is the newest addition to the Today Improv family will be posting more thoughts on the subject. Feel free to post your questions to her in the comment section below. Please help by sharing this blog post on social media. Every bit helps.
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