For many, it would be difficult to argue against the integral role that culture plays in their lives. On October 11th, 2017, LaGuardia Community College invited students and faculty to celebrate Latinx culture by hosting “Born in the Bronx: Hispanic Heritage Celebration.” The event consisted mainly interviews with two men who are undoubtedly familiar […]
In November, Fall 2014, LaGuardia’s Performing Arts Center presented the campus with a social justice oriented play entitled, Lonely Leela. The show ran for a week and a half and lead to the upcoming events of a larger social scale.
At the beginning of this enchanted play the audience is transformed, along with the characters, into a cyber-ruled world, filled with characters that illustrate the enjoyment, excitement, and harm that accompanies the internet occupied world. As a satirical piece, written by Rehana Mirza, Lonely Leela explores how seemingly harmless, everyday internet surfing can quickly escalate into discrimination, verbal bashing, brainwashing, and monopolize time. Directed by Handan Ozbilgin, Lonely Leela was a vision that Mirza transformed into a mystified world controlled by Giggle, the queen of this cyber land who reigned down on its people, literally, sitting perched ten feet above the performers and the audience. Nothing was left out of this piece in terms of controversy. Everything from the pop culture dos and don’ts, to lewd remarks and behaviors were exhibited in the land of the uncensored, also known as the internet.
The playwright made an effort to express the controversial topic of bigotry based on the increased discrimination and distrust towards the Muslim community. Using the Alice in Wonder- land theme the main character, Leela, tries to escape this strange land and find her way back home to her boyfriend. In the end, she finds her true identity as a Muslim-American woman. Throughout the play she is faced with trials and triumphs that force her to explore her own identity.
Just like the well known Alice story, Leela finds herself entangled with the characters in this new place; she finds friends and villains along the way. She encounters Java and Flash, minions of S.A.T.A.N, System Administrative Tools for Analyzing Networks, who try to defer her from her mission to get back home. She is also captivated by the eccentric characters who were personifications of internet findings like online shopping, internet blogging, online gaming, and let’s not forget scams.
The brash comedy illuminates the issues and gives the audience a grim realization of the truth. Leela meets a Muslim-American social-political blogger, Fareed, who is trapped in cyber land. She learns that denying her Muslim identity and turning a blind eye to the discrimination of her people and other people, makes her no better than those who spread the hate firsthand.
The social injustices that people face on a daily basis have found a new medium through the internet. There is no telling where discriminatory images, videos, or posts will end up. What starts in the home of a hateful blogger can reach the screens of a reader halfway around the world who feels the words on a deeper level than just nonsensical ranting. As a part of the audience, I left the Black Box Theater feeling enlightened. A sense of empathy was re-instilled that I had lost because of the flashy distractions of the internet, or even the physical world. Actors, Giovanni Ortiz, Viguens Louis, and Joell Jackson expressed to me that after the rehearsals, and the nightly performances, the words they uttered stuck with them for days after the production run. It is a magical thing for a playwright to captivate the audience, but when the performers who hear the same lines repeatedly feel a deeper meaning every time, then you know the message is strongly embedded in the minds of every witness in the audience. After seeing the play and having face-to- face conversations with these three actors, I experienced the messaged projected on a deeper level than just watching the play could provide. This is what the playwright wanted. Jackson, who played Fareed, says the profanity used and the lewd jokes are “catalysts [or] conversation starters.” Ortiz stated, in congruence, the idea behind it was to be more aware and that they were “not here to change [the audiences] minds.”
This play was one of many installments to address social awareness about Muslim discrimination being produced in LaGuardia’s acclaimed LPAC. The collection of pieces is entitled Beyond Sacred: Unthinking Muslim Identity, and the inter- disciplinary artistic accounts exhibit the overall goal of spreading awareness about discrimination by focusing on the Muslim community. Alongside Leela, will be other theatre productions, art and photo exhibits, and community forums for the 2014-2015 season. Outside of the LPAC, one of the photography installments debuted as part of the grand opening, on November 13, with curators from the college’s photography and theatre departments along with the students and subjects who captured and posed for these pictures. Among the curators are Lidiya Kan, Scott Sternbach, Javier Larenas, Thierry Gourjon, and Hugo Fernandez, from the photography department, an outside source Alexandra Ben- Olhman, and Steven Hitt, the Director of the Theatre program. After spending a few months at LaGuardia Community College, the exhibit and additional images will be transferred to the Queens Museum for further viewing.
The college’s theater community is also doing a segment in conjunction with Beyond Sacred, eatre for the Oppressed, which following the theme of social injustices focuses on gender differences and Muslim equality. Actor Viguen Louis, from Lonely Leela, says that with the performances given by theatres who promote social change the controversy is “right in front of you. You cannot run away. When you’re home, you can change the channel of turn off the TV.”
The objective of the performing arts center and the photography program is to open the eyes of the students, parents, and faculty that attend these shows and viewings. The world is a difficult place for anyone to live in today and with a little social awareness and collective change, it could become a little safer. With all of the different cultures, ethnicities, and races that make up the United States of America, tolerance should not be a taboo subject. In the words of Green Day, recited both in Lonely Leela and by actor Joell Jackson, “Don’t wanna be an American Idiot.”