Bahai News -- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - Play explores journey of racism, sexism [The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 01/08/03]

Play explores journey of racism, sexism

William Berry / AJC
Masud Olufani (left) listens as Rouha Sobhani gives an impassioned speech during a rehearsal of "Intersections" at Georgia State University.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The play "Intersections" starts with a familiar scene: A man asks a woman for the time. She clutches her purse and turns away.

He is African-American. She is a woman wearing a head scarf. On a spartan stage, they take each other on a poetic journey that explores racism and sexism. The three-scene play will be performed Thursday night at Georgia State University. It will star Masud Olufani of Stone Mountain as the man and Rouha Sobhani of Roswell as the woman.

"I use the history of the African-American people, because that is the cultural context from which I come, to deal with the issue of perseverance, overcoming great obstacles -- and endurance," said Olufani, who co-wrote the play with Ruha Benjamin, a former Atlantan who graduated from Spelman College in 2001.

Sobhani also provided input in the play's creation.

"I am taking her on a journey of the African-American male experience in this country, from slavery to the present," said Olufani, 33, who is also a sculptor, artist and a character actor at Stone Mountain Park.

Struggles for justice

Benjamin, Olufani and Sobhani share the Baha'i faith. Through their play, they explore universal themes that take the audience through the struggles for justice worldwide, they said.

When the man in the play is rebuffed, he addresses the female character: "You don't see me. You don't see me. What is the veil that obscures your vision and hides your deeper self?"

She responds: "What I hear is the immutable ringing of bells wedding me into submission."

The female character takes the man on a journey that touches women's issues in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and America.

"I dedicate my artwork to the issues of prejudice and human rights," said Sobhani, a poet. She was born in Iran, traveled extensively and studied sociology in Cameroon.

"The fact [is] that there is solid suffering and obvious suffering for women," Sobhani said. "The abuse, the Taliban, the circumcision, rape. And there are some solid, quiet abuses and suffering beyond walls and windows that people won't see. I am hoping that through my artwork I can raise consciousness."

Veil used as symbol

Benjamin, Sobhani and Olufani chose the symbolism of the woman's head covering or veil because they wanted to use the concept of veiling on several levels, said Benjamin, 24, who is working on her doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley.

"In the West, the veiled woman represents an extreme cultural difference -- the ultimate other," said Benjamin, whose Iranian mother was raised in India. Her father is African-American.

"We chose that image to demonstrate the coming together of what many of us may feel is extremely different from our experience," she said. "In reality, both men and women of all cultures are veiled to an extent, in the sense that our true humanity is often not seen by others."

Sobhani was eager to explore the issues in a play with Olufani, which led to the writers' collaboration.

Although all three were in metro Atlanta last year as the play took shape, it was written via e-mail with Olufani writing the man's role and Benjamin writing the woman's role. More than 20 long e-mails passed between them before the final version was done. Sobhani's input helped shape the woman's character. The play premiered last year in New York City during an arts festival.

"Intersections" is dedicated to Tahirih, a 19th-century Persian woman who struggled for women's rights. In 1848, she removed her veil during a Baha'i conference. Four years later, she was strangled to death.

But Sobhani emphasized that the symbolism of the veil in the play is not meant to chastise women who wear veils.

"I don't want my Middle Eastern sisters to think that I am saying it's bad," Sobhani said.

"If you chose, it's your choice. It's part [of you]. But if they wrap you, they are forcing the clothing on the women. I have tremendous respect for religious law. I am just saying that women shouldn't be forced to do it."

©Copyright 2003, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA, USA)

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