When Fred Sebulske founded Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids in 1981, his mission was to provoke conversation through theater.
With the upcoming play, Disgraced, Sebulske again intends to do just that, taking the front seat as director.
The show hones in on Muslim-American Amir Kapoor, a New York City lawyer struggling with his identity and faith in a post-9/11 American society.
“It’s probably the most timely show I’ve done in a long time,” Sebulske said. “We’re banning people from the country because they’re Muslim, we’re into identity politics, and it’s what this play is really about.”
Sebulske, 73, said a goal for Actor’s Theatre in general is to pay attention to “the other.”
“For me, if the play is about anything, it’s reminding us that there’s always an ‘other,’” Sebulske said. “And that ‘other’ can be scapegoated.”
Humzah Azeem, 19, plays Abe, Amir’s younger cousin. Azeem grew up in the Cascade area and went to Forest Hills Central High School. His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan before he was born, and he and his family are Muslim. Although he said he didn’t feel too “different” growing up, he understands how many Muslims struggle with the two identities together: American and Muslim.
“I sort of have two different worlds,” Azeem said. “I have the America that I grew up in with all my friends and then I have the Islamic America, with the mosque and the way that I grew up. People think that Islam and American culture can’t mix and I think that is a really common misconception — I know from experience that it can.”
Azeem said another common misconception is relating terrorism to the Islamic religion.
“The Muslims that most people have had an interaction with are the terrorists, because they’re always in the news,” Azeem said. “I think (after 9/11), people just wanted to quickly classify who we are, because you want to name the enemy at first. But they are my enemy, too.”
While not all Muslims experience America the same way, Azeem said he is grateful to his mom for making his experience as seamless as possible.
“I won the jackpot by being born in America,” Azeem said. “When I was a kid, I didn’t really see that much (discrimination), but I think it was largely because my mom tried to make sure I didn’t see anything that could have been there.”
Overall, Azeem hopes attendees leave the show with more of an open mind.
“Everyone could benefit from having a relationship with somebody that is different than them,” Azeem said. “The fact that everyone is different is a similarity, (and) people don’t realize how truly similar everybody is.”
Sebulske noted that the play is not just meant to be about Muslims in America, it’s meant to speak on how we all “otherize” people different from us. The director said the show will relate to anyone sitting in the theater seats that night.
“The play is very entertaining. It’s got some laughs in it, but ultimately you begin to realize that you’re watching someone who has become a victim of forces beyond his control, but who’s also made decisions in his life that have led him there,” Sebulske said. “So that makes it a universal story. We’ve all done it. In one way or another, we’ve all made decisions that we regret — we’ve cut away pieces of ourselves.”
This show will be Azeem’s first community theater production. In high school, he was in two musicals, participated with the improv team, and performed stand-up comedy at a talent show. A political science major at Grand Valley State University, he said theater is one of the best mediums used to help people process complex topics.
“I’ve always liked theater, film and TV, because they give people an escape from their reality,” Azeem said. “But the beauty of the best type of movie or the best type of theater is you have that escape from reality, but it comes full circle and you tie that back into your real life.”
Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids
160 Fountain St. NE
April 13-22, 8 p.m.
General admission $28, students/seniors $22