Another WCS Flashback: Interview with Anna Khaja and Heather de Michele
Last year, Culture Project’s Women Center Stage 2012 Festival presented a workshop of writer/performer Anna Khaja’s Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto, directed by Heather de Michele. We were stunned by Anna’s ability to transform herself from one character to another to portray how each person regarded Benazir Bhutto in his/her own eyes and knew we had to give this play a run on Culture Project’s stage. Below is a 2012 WCS interview with Anna and Heather, discussing their inspirations, challenges, and hopes for Shaheed.
Tickets for Shaheed are on sale now! Visit our ticketing page or call 866-814111 to reserve your seats.
Anna, you just recently received the 2011 Ovation Award in Los Angeles for Leading Actress in a Play for Shaheed (which was also nominated for Best Production of the Year). First off: Congratulations! Could you tell me a bit about your experience in merging your performing with your writing? How does your performance inform your writing and vice versa?
Anna: Thank you. I couldn’t have anticipated the journey of connection I would discover between performing and the writing. At first, I kept them completely separate. I had set out to create a solo play with one character, Benazir Bhutto. But as I sat down to write, a different story began to pour out of me. It involved seven characters, not one, each trying to reconcile their relationship with Bhutto. And then, at the climax, the eighth, character, Benazir would emerge, in the moments before her assassination. During the writing process, I let the actress part of me fall away. I was only interested in telling the story I felt needed to be told, in an intuitive way. If that meant that one of the characters was a sixty year-old male Pakistani college professor, so be it. And I trusted that the actress part of me would deal with how to play these people later. But once I had finished the final draft, I was terrified. I realized I had created characters far from my wheel-house, and had no idea if I could pull them off. When Heather and I first started working together, I would say things like, “I don’t know why the character says this.” The actress didn’t always know what the writer was thinking when she wrote something. I was frustrated that the two couldn’t seem to co-exist at the same moment. Eventually I learned to be objective and treat the piece as I would one by any playwright, and just dive in and do my work. During rehearsals, Heather was great about bringing things together pictorially and illuminating the themes and character aspects that I didn’t even know were there. Gradually, I was able to let go of the schism I had created. I would make narrative adjustments in the text as we rehearsed, and cut certain lines I knew I could convey with my acting. By the end of the rehearsal process, I felt everything had come full circle, and writer and performer had merged.
And Heather, what has been your experience directing a performer in a piece she wrote? Have there been any surprises in merging your creative visions for the piece?
Heather: Working with Anna Khaja has been extremely rewarding. When an actor is performing her own words there is a certain level of investment that is thrilling to be a part of. Anna has tweaked the script in small (and sometimes large) ways after each run since the premiere in 2010. The script is constantly evolving and that evolution is a direct reaction to conversations that have taken place post performance with patrons or between Anna and I. As a writer, I know that Anna is always moving the work in a more daring and authentic direction. Since there is a constant dialogue between us and a high level of trust, our creative vision for Shaheed has continued to align. A rare and wonderful thing.
This piece is a compilation of monologues surrounding an historical event. Who are these characters? How much of each character is historical versus fictional? And have you seen them change and develop throughout the creative process?
Anna: While I had initially thought this play would only have the sole character, Benazir Bhutto, my research led me to the conclusion that the only way to understand Benazir is to understand who she was to others. People’s perceptions of her were, and remain, varied and contradictory. She was at once despised and adored to degrees we as Americans may find difficult to comprehend. Politics, I’ve learned, is extremely personal in Pakistan. It is life or death. I decided the only way I knew how to tell this story was through multiple perspectives.
Four of my eight characters are fictional, and were drawn to illustrate the humanity of Pakistan: Sara, an American college student in Rawalpindi; Cuseem, a former democratic revolutionary turned Yale professor; Shamsher, a street vendor ecstatic at his precious Bibi’s return as she will mean a way to be reunited with his daughter; and the daughter herself, Afshan, a teenage Muslim fanatic who was sent to a Madrassa rather than to starve on the street.
The other four characters are based on real people whose lives intersected with Benazir’s in a meaningful way: Condoleezza Rice, who conceived of the power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf that drew Benazir back to Pakistan; CNN interviewer Daphne Barak, who considered Benazir a close personal friend; Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s estranged niece and journalist who is highly critical of not only her aunt Benazir but also of Pakistani politics in general; and of course Benazir herself.
The characters and writing have all evolved as time goes on and will continue to do so. In a sense, I don’t consider this piece finished. I am still integrating ideas and illuminating themes, with the awareness that current events always seem to be commenting on Benazir’s life and legacy.
Anna, as a half-Pakistani woman, I can only imagine that this piece is inspired by a personal aspect of your life. Could you each talk a bit about where your inspiration has come from in the creation of this performance?
Anna: I am half-Pakistani, raised by my Pakistani father and American mother. Despite this, the lens through which I view Pakistan has, for the most part, been very American. Benazir’s assassination affected me deeply and filled me with questions about the world, about Pakistan, about myself. Shaheed was born out of my personal journey to answer these questions and try and discover the fractured soul of Pakistan, and the woman who risked her life to try and save it.
As I learned more about Benazir’s life, I sensed she had so much conflict inside her; as an educated woman in an Islamic society, a person of privilege in a desperately poor country, a member of a family that was adored and feared, and a human being tempted by corruption and excess. I found myself at once deeply admiring her and at the same time, doubting her motives. Most of all, I was gripped by the question: What kind of woman, in the face of certain danger, would go out in public on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi, of all places, the very spot her father had been hanged? Was it an act of great courage? An ego-driven addiction to adoration? An attempt to continue the work of her father? Or a conscious sacrifice in her political mission? I wanted to get inside that question and answer it for myself.
What do you hope to say with this piece? And what do you hope the predominantly American audience who views this performance will take away from it?
Anna: I hope that the audience leaves with an understanding that Benazir Bhutto was neither purely heroic nor purely corrupt – but a complicated woman who sometimes failed miserably and other times triumphed as a model of courage. I’d like them to leave the theater wanting to know more about both Bhutto and Pakistan. I’d like them to understand on a gut level how intertwined the fates of Pakistan and the US are. And I’d like them to have a deepened sense of the vast and dynamic group of people that practice Islam.
On another level, I also wanted to explore the Islamic concepts of the “Shaheed” (martyr) and “Jihad” (struggle). Both of these Arabic terms have rich and beautiful definitions in Islam, but have also been appropriated by radicals for their own ends. A “Shaheed” for instance is what suicide bombers often call themselves. But it’s also been applied to Benazir, who died for a cause in true sacrifice for others. Similarly, “Jihad” is a word that invokes fear in many Americans. In my play, I attempt to reclaim the word, hopefully explaining that Benazir’s mission to unite Islam and democracy was itself a “Jihad.”
How do you handle the delicate balance between art and politics in your work on this piece? How do you find politics and art intersect and inform each other? What are the challenges and graces you’ve encountered in your work with political theater?
Anna: I think that the word “politics” can be viewed as problematic in art simply because it connotes a kind of cold distance from “the personal.” But at the root of politics are humans striving for a certain kind of order, justice, rights and/or freedom within their own world experience. And this is very personal. Each character in Shaheed is trying to reconcile his/her own morality and personal integrity, with his or her political beliefs and actions. This isn’t easy for any of them. And it cuts them to the core. They look to Benazir (Bibi) for redemption. But by the end of the play, we see that Benazir herself is deeply conflicted, and locked in a desperate struggle between her own human frailty and her role as a world leader and a hero for Pakistan. At the end of Shaheed, she is searching for the courage to redeem herself and fulfill her destiny.