Great Barrington — It’s a cultural moment for the ages. During the course of a conversation, a Caucasian student at a predominantly white school stereotypes a new student, a girl from Egypt. The young lady challenges his impertinence and wonders aloud how he could have come up with such an opening line.
“I Googled how to talk to Muslim girls,” the boy replied.
And that pretty much encapsulates the central theme of “Jabber,” a three-handed, one-act play by Vancouver-based playwright Marcus Youssef that shines a light not only on stereotypes, but on religion, abuse, racism and even generosity.
Produced by a Montréal-based theatre company, Geordie Productions, Jabber and its youthful cast made an appearance Friday morning at the Mahaiwe Center for the Performing Arts before an even more youthful audience: students from the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, Taconic Hills Central Schools, Berkshire Waldorf High School, Berkshire Country Day and Wahconah High School.
The young girl, Fatima, recently transferred to the unnamed Canadian high school after the words “All Muslims must die!” were found scrawled on a wall at her old school. When she arrived at the new school, she was the only student wearing a hijab, the head covering worn in public by some Muslim women. Indeed, her hijab is where the play derives its title.
The school guidance counselor, Mr. E., tries mightily to help Fatima adjust to her new surroundings and to stay away from a certain boy but for obvious reasons it is no easy task. Fatima stumbles upon Jorah, a hot-tempered and sarcastic 10th-grade boy who professes to hate teachers and has “issues” — perhaps stemming from the fact that his father is in jail for beating up his mother. Worse yet, Jorah is culturally deprived.
“It’s weird how people act like they know something about Islam, when they don’t have a clue,” Fatima said.
“I don’t,” Jorah replied without hesitation.
“Oh, I know,” Fatima said, drawing herself closer to him.
In this case, ignorance eventually turns out to be bliss, as the two grow to accept and educate each other. Jorah learns about growing up as a Muslim girl and Fatima becomes enlightened on the stereotype of a working class boy. Indeed, Jorah becomes enamored of Fatima and perhaps energized by the challenge of understanding her.
“I’ve gotta say the whole Muslim thing is kind of super hot,” he says as he playfully pulls the hijab off her head.
See video below of selected scenes from Jabber, courtesy Geordie Productions:
Jabber is also about boundaries, especially as Fatima and Jorah grow closer during the course of the play. The boundaries are cultural, religious and even political.
It seems that a high school is an ideal environment in which to examine our assumptions and prejudices — and especially so in the theatre. For as anyone who has attended one knows, high schools are a peculiar mix of social awkwardness and lack of inhibition. Indeed, high school is where the attitudes we learn at home are staged for all to see.
And it’s also a place where misfits can find each other — or as a study guide put out by Geordie Productions puts it, “But let’s say that maybe, just maybe, Fatima and Jorah start to, like, like each other …”.
It is perhaps also ironic that the source of Jabber is Canada, which generally has a more welcoming immigration policy than the U.S. and to which record numbers of refugees, many of them originally from Africa and the Middle East, have fled the U.S. since the election of President Donald Trump.
Furthermore, Canada’s Muslim residents outstrip those in the U.S. relative to their respective populations by a margin of about 4-1. The percentage of Muslim residents in Canada is 2.8, as opposed to 0.8 in the U.S.
Still, acts of violence against Muslims in Canada do occur. The performance at the Mahaiwe took place just before the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque on Jan. 29, 2017, in which six people were killed and 19 were injured. The terrorist attack was carried out by a Laval University student with far-right, white nationalist leanings.
During the Q&A after the performance, a student asked actress Mariana Taylor, who played Fatima, if she had any “Middle Eastern ethnicity in her.” Taylor stated matter-of-factly that she is originally from Colombia but grew up in Montréal, just as her two co-actors did.
David Sklar, who played Mr. E, fielded a question about whether the actors spoke French by replying in that language. That sparked hearty applause from students who were impressed by his fluent bilingualism. Sklar noted than in Montréal, most people can speak English and French, and often a third language as well.
“It makes for some very interesting conversations on the street,” Sklar said to his mostly monolingual audience.
Then when a student asked, “Why are people so mean about race,” he turned the question back to students — and hit the jackpot: “They’re afraid”; “They’re insecure about themselves.”; “They’re not interested in accepting others.”
As for what inspired them to become actors, Aris Tyros, who played Jorah, recounted the story of when he was in 10th grade — or as it’s called in Canada, “grade 10” — recalled that he and his twin sister were trying out for a play.
“She got the part and I didn’t and now I’m trying to prove that I’m better than her,” Tyros deadpanned.
Another student had a question about the minimalist staging: a pair of transparent partitions, a few chairs, a projection screen and a couple of fake laptop computers that Jorah and Fatima used to Skype on. That’s because of the demands of touring, Sklar said.
“We have to be able to set this up and tear it down quickly as we move from city to city,” Sklar explained.
In addition, the set must be able to fit into the trio’s touring van and the materials have to be flexible enough to move around the stage and configure into very different environments: classrooms; hallways, offices, homes.
Interestingly, when Jabber debuted in 2013 it was considered a controversial play, according to the Montréal Times, a twice-weekly English-language newspaper in the city — if for no other reason than it forces people to confront their own prejudices.
“There have been school boards that say, ‘Absolutely we want it. This is a conversation that needs to happen,’ ” Sklar told the Times. “Others have been more tentative. A lot of teachers think that this is a brave play — that it’s an important play — and that it’s something that the students need to see.”
And Jabber is remarkably universal in its appeal. It is clearly targeted to middle- and high-school students, but most adults will appreciate not only the subject matter but the energetic and polished performances, along with Youssef’s tight and witty script.
At any rate, unlike some school field trips that seem more like an excuse to exit the campus for the day, this one likely found the students walking away knowing more about themselves and about others than they did when they got on the bus that morning.