is there room for activism in the theater? (Transcript forever neighbors episode 2)

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:00:00] Welcome back to the Forever Neighbors podcast. I’m Julia Joyce Barry 

Pegah Yazd [00:00:04] and I’m Pegah Yazd. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:00:06] In this episode, we talk to theater director, educator and my good friend Zi Alikhan. As an actor and, for lack of a less embarrassing term, “theater person” myself, I came to the conversation with Zi with some awareness of what is going on with the current state of theater and a fair amount of love and simultaneous disappointment with the theater of the past. I wanted to bring Zi on the podcast because he’s not only a wonderful person who I care about, but he also does really important work. 

Pegah Yazd [00:00:35] And I love theater, but I’m not as much part of the theater world as Zi and Julia are. So I was very interested to learn how theater can speak to social justice issues. He had a lot of thoughts on the future of exclusivity in theater and what it means to find an intersection between theater and activism. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:00:52] Zi has worked with the touring company of Hamilton as an assistant director on Broadway. He has taught at universities across the country and most recently, Zi has been named the inaugural artistic directing fellow at Artists Repertory Theater in Portland, Oregon, where he serves as director of DNA: Oxygen, a new initiative dedicated to the development and production of Newark generated by, led by and featuring BIPOC artists. 

Pegah Yazd [00:01:16] Keep listening to hear our conversation with Zi, where we talk about the state of theater and the pandemic, what it means to be a queer MENASA artist, and finding ways to continuously honor cultural experiences through the bodies who have lived them on stage and off. We also talk about our favorite musicals. It will surprise no one that my favorites are the ones with communist undertones. Let’s get into it. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:01:50] Zi, I thank you so much for being here, 

Zi Alikhan [00:01:53] My friends, thank you for having me. Hi, Pegah it’s nice to meet you. Julia, it’s always a pleasure. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:01:59] Always a pleasure. I know even though I know you so well, I feel like it’s always a big update whenever we see each other. 

Zi Alikhan [00:02:07] yeah, it’s it’s not even just that. It’s like a big update. But I feel like you’re one of those kinds of people in my life, and I’m really thankful to have you in this way. You’re like an incredibly comforting and warm and an incredibly intelligent onion. In this way. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:02:24] We’re starting off strong. 

Zi Alikhan [00:02:25] And I feel like every time I see you, I literally I learn new things about you. And I also am like able to kind of see different fractals of the world kind of through your perspective. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:02:37] Thank you so much. I’m going to, like, half shirk off that compliment by saying I want you to read that my funeral. But secondly, I also really want to, you know, work on my sincerity and say thank you. That was very kind, though. Something that, you know, we want to talk about a little bit as I’m kind of a, you know, a theater person. You are absolutely a theater person, a theater maker, a director, educator. Pegah is definitely involved with activism. So she is sort of more on outside of the theater world. Something that I wanted to sort of start out with is how we talk about theater right now because we’re still in the pandemic. In your opinion, is theater like in spaces? Is it on pause? Is it still happening? Is it very much still like generating?

Zi Alikhan [00:03:27] I think, our scope of theater–  because it’s a strange thing, because for all intents and purposes,  I don’t want to get reductive, but we live in probably, if not one of the biggest theater cities in the world, maybe the biggest theater city in the world. And so it’s very easy for us to kind of reduce what theater is to what we see in New York City and what we see kind of happening, especially commercially. You know, when we walk out of our apartments and we see billboards or we you know, we see a commercial for something on TV, we we think, oh, that’s theater. And and I just don’t think that’s one hundred percent true. And I think that looking both at history and looking at the present like what has been shaped by this pandemic, well, both of those things will completely refute the idea that, like the commercial theater in New York is capital, T Theater — is the only theater. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:04:24] Let’s hope. 

Zi Alikhan [00:04:24] And yeah, yeah, let’s hope. And I become a parody of myself because I just talk about the Greeks all the time. And, you know, how the Greeks invented theater as this thing to become a literal, physical and emotional space where people could come into a space and argue politics and then leave that space and become more informed citizens, potentially better citizens, having paid witness to something and having engaged in conversation about something that maybe they knew a lot about or maybe they knew nothing about. And I think, unfortunately, the theater that we see a lot, especially above, you know, 42nd Street in New York City, has really created this like very distinct bifurcation between a spectator and a spectacle. And that, you know, an audience members job in the New York commercial theater is to come in, sit down and check out. And, you know, maybe the next day when they show up to work and somebody asks them what they did last night be like, I saw X, Y and Z play. It was cool. And then that was, you know, how they interacted with it. That’s how they took the play home with them. And I don’t think that’s why theater was made. I don’t think that’s why theater was invented. And, you know, we see an immediacy of theater without without these kind of holy spaces as they were, without these kind of gatekeeping spaces where, you know, I think in New York we are kind of taught that theater can only happen in these places by these people in this way. And it’s been a fascinating thing to see how we as a community have been extracted of those spaces and of the proximity we can find in the spaces and have had to ask ourselves what is the essential quality of making theater and why are we doing it and what is necessary in the way that we make it. And, you know, the Zoom play is something that I think we will be talking a lot about in the future. I don’t love participating in the Zoom play. I don’t love watching the Zoom play. But the thing I am so obsessed with is the amount of access that the Zoom play gives folks that would never have had access to that play to begin with. Whether that be about global access, whether that be about financial access, whether that be about the fact that hundreds of thousands and millions of people in this country have been told for decades, centuries that the theater is not a place for us. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:06:56] Yes. 

Zi Alikhan [00:06:57] That all of a sudden you can log into a Zoom play, turn your camera off. Nobody has to know who you are and you can participate in the event. And hopefully the reiteration of that process will tell you that the theater is a place for you. You obviously have to have access to some kind of technology to download something like TikTok, but you don’t necessarily have to have, you know, producorial to be able to be a genius on TikTok. I’m speaking with a lot of people now about making projects who I would never have known would have been generative theater artists a year and a half ago. But are people who are now incredible on Twitter and incredible on TikTok, an incredible and not just like kind of bullshit social media, but are really geniuses at, like, intersecting performance and politics and and the social media game. I think theater is alive and well. I think that there’s obviously a lot of necessary change happening in our industry. I also think that we’re months away, not even not years away, we’re months away from seeing some plays that look very much like the plays that we have known. But my hope is that they won’t feel like the plays that we’ve known. And by that I mean, I hope that the experience of communing with those events won’t feel like how we’ve known it before. 

Pegah Yazd [00:08:21] Yeah, it’s really interesting to see the ways that this pandemic has transformed, like so many different industries and so many different ways of expression. So to think of kind of like TikTok as a space for theater is like such a fascinating read. 

Zi Alikhan [00:08:39] Yeah. And I see my colleagues kind of taking one or two roads, actually. It’s kind of two roads with like a third half road in between where people are either like, “I am not going to participate in any of that and I’m going to do the work the way that I’ve known how to do the work and just like hope for the best that this is going to be the thing.” And I’ve seen colleagues just be like “I am all in and I am going to do the same thing, do the TikTok thing. I’m going to become an Instagram celebrity. I’m going to do this.” And I don’t think I’m either of those things. I think I’m somebody who’s, like, tried to be a little bit adaptable to the new world, but also has been like pretty confident in the fact that to me,  that is a medium that some people are experts of. And I enjoy being in conversation with the experts, but I’m not racing to become an expert in that medium because I actually think that the intersection of both of those worlds is going to be the work that I’m interested in making moving forward. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:09:35] And I wanted to talk about specifically, you know, your relationship to activism. So I’ve you know, I’ve spoken to some of my other theater artist friends, some of whom are queer artists of color, who have sort of like balked a little bit at having their art be equated to activism. And I kind of have a good idea in my mind why. But you seem to be interested in that or more comfortable or excited about it. And I’m wondering why and what your sort of perspective is there?

Zi Alikhan [00:10:11] I fully respect the idea that theater-making and activism might be mutually exclusive for some folks and that the way in which, you know, the theater has been historically codified by so many systems and structures that have kept people out, doesn’t invite a sense of activism from some folks. And I respect that. I actually agree with that in some ways. And, you know, have this conversation with my boyfriend a lot that I think there’s something very specific about, you know, being first generation American, being culturally Muslim, growing up, you know, being like from a 9/11 generation and like all of that stuff, that there’s something that — I feel it between my parents and I. I feel a very big generational divide between my parents and I about maintaining a status quo and disrupting the status quo. And I really believe that you can disrupt the status quo in every single kind of way, in every way that you interact with the world at large. And it doesn’t have to be giant acts of disruption that they’re you know, that some folks really can exist and can make huge change in tiny acts of disruption. Just to like give an example, I bought a mask from an Arab-run clothing company called Profound that has Arabic writing on the front. And my mom freaks out when I wear this mask, like she gets so nervous and my boyfriend also gets very nervous, especially when I’m by myself. And to me, I consider that a small act of disruption, that Arabic is a language, Arabic as a symbol, the kind of MENASA identity, the Muslim identity, are only going to be viewed as dangerous in this country if we continue to let the iterations that we see of those identities only be linked to danger. And so to me, there’s something extremely subversive in walking into the grocery store and having a full interaction with the butcher and the woman who’s working in the produce department and the person who’s helping me check out with this mask and having to have this visible sign of something that so many times in our country’s history, we have been told, is just a dangerous symbol. And growing up, my holy book was written in that language. That was the opposite of a dangerous symbol to me. It was an enlightening symbol. It was a freeing symbol. It was a symbol that was connected to community. And so to me, like being able to have small moments of disruption, feels like something that I can do every day and how that applies to how activism interacts with my work is that I think the truest work we are going to make and we are going to see is work that has honest conversations with the world outside of our theaters. I am constantly endeavoring for the stuff that gets made on stages that I’m a part of to be as transparent and open with the facts of the world that are happening outside and with the way that the news cycle and the way that the hopes and the joys and the fears and the struggles of the people who are going to be interacting with our work, how will the kind of alchemical combustion that happens when they do come and see the work? And to me. That’s activism. That idea of of disruption by transparency and disruption, by kind of breaking down that symbology and all of all of that feels like activism. And, you know, I then see a lot of my friends, my colleagues who are practicing activism in the theater in completely different ways. Much what I would consider bigger, grander gestures. But to me, it doesn’t feel like any kind of competition. I think that artists with a goal of leaving the world a better place than the one that they entered are all going to approach their work in a different way. But if we’re all working towards that same goal, then like chipping away at that block is going to be something that I think we can all do together. 

Pegah Yazd [00:14:39] I’m also Middle Eastern. My family’s Muslim, my family’s from Iran, and I think you’re also from the Bay Area, right? 

Zi Alikhan [00:14:47] I so I’m from right outside of Sacramento and I went to Berkeley for two years. So, yeah, I’m Northern California through and through. Are you from Northern California? 

Pegah Yazd [00:14:55] I’m from Freemont, East Bay, California. 

Zi Alikhan [00:14:58] Cool. No way. 

Pegah Yazd [00:15:01] Yeah! When you were saying about how you would wear the mask with Arabic on it, there was this sweatshirt that I used to wear all the time. That was from the Iranian student union at Berkeley that just said “Irani” in Farsi on it really big. And it was the same. Yeah, I was the same exact feeling like and this was like in the earlier 2000s. So I would like walk around wearing it and like, I couldn’t have put my finger on why it felt so like rebellious. 

Zi Alikhan [00:15:31] You know, I have been having a lot of, like, self conversations about proximity to whiteness and about how I think especially for first generation Americans were like kind of constantly toying with like– or not toying with, but we’re constantly grappling with rather our parents’ relationships to proximity to whiteness and about how that impacts our own sense of self and about like how many times in conscious and unconscious ways in our upbringing, it was seen as good to melt in to kind of the hegemonic culture. And I think about like the way that I talk and like all these other things, like those were imparted to me by my parents. You know, I think about proximity to whiteness for immigrants is something that is oftentimes a safety mechanism. And I think it’s taught it’s passed down to kids as a way to, you know, spring them up a ladder. But I think it oftentimes or at least it now for me personally, is causing a lot of kind of sturm und drang about like, is that good? What did it do? What is the resolve, you know, three years later? Am I happy that that happened? And yeah, so I think, like, it seems like tiny little acts of disruption that give me the ability to experiment with what’s the what’s the alternative? 

Pegah Yazd [00:16:54] And to like differentiate yourself. 

Zi Alikhan [00:16:56] Yeah. Yeah. 

Pegah Yazd [00:16:57] Would you say that your parents, like, really wanted you to assimilate? Because I feel like from my experience it was like, yeah, you want to assimilate but also like not too much because that’s bad and you’re forgetting your culture. And like, there’s this line that you’re supposed to tow. 

Zi Alikhan [00:17:11] My parents are very different people. They are now divorced, which makes a lot of sense. And all the sense in the world, you know, arranged to be married. My mom was 18, my dad was 28. My dad lived in America for about ten years. My mom had never been to the States before they got married. And my dad grew up exclusively in India. And my mom grew up primarily — a little bit in India, but primarily in England, and then spent a lot of time in Europe as well. You know, they just had very different identities growing up, very different identities even when they were a couple, and certainly very different identities today. And my mom has been able to benefit certainly from our proximity to kind of the greater culture than my dad has. And my mom has been very actively involved in city government, a small business owner, she’s like she’s somebody who, you know, you like walk down the street in my hometown and everybody knows who she is. She was asked by three people to run for mayor this year and she decided against it. My dad, on the other hand, is like very stubbornly in a lot of ways rooted in his culture. And, you know, my mom would take me to the theater on a Thursday and on Sunday, every Sunday, I would be going to Quran school with my dad and learning how to read Arabic and like learning suras and like being able to, like, recite the Quran and like meeting Muslim kids. And that was like my upbringing was like this crazy duality between two completely different worlds. And I think as a kid, it’s so easy to see which one is easier, you know, or at least in my case, it was just easier to want to do the things that I was seeing on TV and want to hang out with my friends that I had at school and want to be listening to the music that I heard on the radio. So I quickly rejected a lot of the things that had to do with my culture. And it’s taken a really long time and a lot of like very ugly conversations with myself to say “What is worth reinvestigating? What is worth being in conversation with?” And, you know, I’m never going to be a perfect Muslim boy and I’m never going to be a perfect American dude. And that doesn’t matter. And who is the person that feels most authentic to myself? That’s like in between all of those things. 

Pegah Yazd [00:19:43] So you said that your mom would take you to see shows. Is that was that your first exposure to theater? 

Zi Alikhan [00:19:49] Yeah, I grew up outside of Sacramento and I didn’t know this was unique at the time. Sacramento is like a hub for professional theater. There are like six professional theaters in Sacramento alone, which is pretty crazy. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:20:03] Wow, I didn’t know that. 

Zi Alikhan [00:20:04] Yeah, it’s like a really big theater town. There’s an art museum, there’s a ballet, there’s a symphony. There’s like all kinds of shit. And I just thought that’s how every city was. So I didn’t really think anything of it. But there’s this incredible theater in Sacramento that’s like notorious and the musical theater community called Music Circus. And it was literally when I was a kid and for the 50 years before — was a tent, like an un-air conditioned tent in Sacramento. And they did they did like a full Summerstock in there. And so my mom and I went to see a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat when I was like a little kid. And then that same season, I saw the Phantom of the Opera come, you know, the national tour come. And I was like, totally hooked. And by the time I was in high school, that tent became — they built a huge structure like an air conditioned inside venue that looked like a tent. It’s beautiful. And, you know, I started doing high school theater and I started going, you know, my mom sacrificed a lot when I was in high school and when we were living together so that I could continue to see plays. And she knew that this was something that was special to me. And I think she knew that it was something that was like helping me kind of escape. And she I think she also knew that it was something that I might do for the rest of my life. And so she made a lot of sacrifices to make sure that when tours came through, a music circus was happening, that I was able to kind of still keep it in my life in a way 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:21:37] We love Mom. 

Zi Alikhan [00:21:38] Yeah, yes we do. 

Pegah Yazd [00:21:39] Would you say, like your culture and your upbringing, would you say that influences your work? 

Zi Alikhan [00:21:44] Yeah, totally. Not only do I like to make plays with people of similar community, similar upbringings — not only do I like to tell our stories, but I like to bring the cultural practices and the traditions and the way that a community functions from growing up in and around the mosque that I went to and going to like Indian family functions. And that sense of I mean, it feels like to me, like I also talk a lot about Breugel paintings, like the old Dutch Masters paintings, because they’re just the way that they depict commmunities and people and people in a kind of pastoral setting is like to me that feels a lot like, you know, after Saturday or Sunday prayers and people are just gathering like, you know, and the courtyard space of a mosque. And to me, there’s something about like the way that families gather and people gather and communities gather. I wrote this the other day, I was writing about what it was like to grow up Muslim in Sacramento. And the thing that I think was so cool about that Muslim community is there were you know, it was the 90s. You know, we were in like Gulf conflict at the time. And so, like to be Muslim in California was kind of scary at some points. And, you know, you watched a community gather of Muslims from Iran and Muslims from India and Muslims from Africa and Muslims from Indonesia and like from all over the world. And the the one factor, you know, they shared religion, they shared faith and they made community. We made community because of that. I find that to be really impactful in the way that I want my rehearsal room to run. That, you know, there was something about a shared goal and a shared mission about those groups and about, you know, those experiences that I think really links to the work that I like to make. 

Pegah Yazd [00:23:43] Yeah. And also, I feel like just having community, creating community can be a form of activism.. To tie back into activism. Like it’s so subversive to create those networks. 

Zi Alikhan [00:23:56] Yeah. And not only create networks, but to carve out space that is able to reflect identity in a real way and not not kind of prescribed identity, because I think especially it’s like it’s crazy to talk about, like until I got my TSA PreCheck like three years ago, I didn’t go to an airport between 2001 and 2018 without getting additional screening.  I had a TSA agent once… I will never forget it. I was like flying home for Christmas for the first time from New York City. And I everything was going right. And I asked the TSA agent like “What’s happening?” And she looked at me and said, “Well, with a last name like that, I’m not surprised you’re getting additional screening.” And I will never forget that moment. And it was a woman of color, too, which was like especially like harmful in that moment. All of that is about prescribed identity. You know, like somebody is telling me based on who what I look like, what my last name is like, all of these things that I must be like this, I must be this kind of guy. I must be capable or desirous to do X, Y and Z thing. And I think there’s something really beautiful about the way that that community came together, that Muslim community in Sacramento growing up that just said we are going to carve out space to do all the other things that you don’t think we’re going to do, you know, to to peacefully gather and to celebrate birthdays and to eat together and to be joyful and to pray and to do all of this stuff and to disrupt that prescribed identity. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:25:36]  Beautifully said. We’ve been talking a lot about community ourselves. And and I think there really is nothing like being part of something that truly feels sacred. And whether it’s, you know, just a moment where all of these people in a room, in a rehearsal room, in a mosque, in a church, in your living room, have this moment of shared experience. And those are the moments we live for and  feeling a part of something and feeling like whatever this alchemical, you know, thing is going on, it’s making our lives a bit better. Total moment or beyond. 

Pegah Yazd [00:26:17] I’m curious because you seem to have like a very generous or like broad definition of activism… Does something like having more diverse representation feel like activism or does that feel maybe more like tokenism? Like where’s the line between? 

Zi Alikhan [00:26:34] That’s a really great question. I think we’ve seen a lot of bandaids get thrown in our industry. And I think that, like the buzzword of diversity is such a big Band-Aid that gets thrown on our work. And I think that there’s unconscious efforts towards diversity that I don’t believe are helpful. I believe that putting bodies of color on stage and not knowing why or what communities those bodies end up serving, what stories those bodies are and those people in those brains are telling is only optic. You know, and I don’t think that’s activism. I think a theater being able to say, you know, these are communities that we never serve through our writing, through our programing, through our funding and being able to forge relationships to communities and then potentially producing something that we then see has bodies on stage that we’ve never seen on stage before… that kind of conscious idea of diversifying is activism, I think. And I think honestly, the activism in that feels like the feels like it starts in the very beginning from advocating for the communities that don’t get served in the work. You know, that is where the activism really starts. 

Pegah Yazd [00:27:53] To me, as like a just a layman like theater fan, but not like embedded in the community at all, there just seems to be such a like, well, what if, like Hermione was Black and what if so-and-so was black? And that just is like the extent of the conversation. 

Zi Alikhan [00:28:13] And so and you’re so right, Pegah, that like, there’s a lot of unearthing that you have to do about that character’s lived experience and what the actor’s lived experience is going to be like in the community that eventually gets constructed on stage. 

Pegah Yazd [00:28:31] And I mean, this also happens in the film industry, too, like actors are the carriers of of diversity and representation. And yet these shows and films and whatever are all like still written by white men, still directed by the same people. Everyone like behind the camera or backstage is still largely not creating a world or creating an environment that, like people of color, would naturally live in. 

Zi Alikhan [00:28:58] Yeah, totally. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:29:00] Also, you know. Theater is so steeped in tradition, in this sort of like inside baseball-y kind of like inner protective world where, you know, I you know, I mentioned to Pegah, you know, have you ever been around a group of theater people and felt like so sort of excluded? But when you’re on the inside of that, it feels so inclusive. But there’s all these sort of traditions, right? There’s things you do say, you don’t say, places you walk, you don’t walk. All of these sort of rules, which I imagine are sort of started because the sort of precarious nature of theater. It’s always been very delicate. And there’s always this fear that it’s it’s not going to be around forever or that we’re going to lose some of these precious works or whatever, maybe because of money funding, maybe things are controversial or whatever. But I guess how do we recognize some of the really great works that were created in a time that was obviously so steeped in systemic racism, white supremacy and and honor those works and the traditions, but then also recognize that so many of those things really can’t exist, period. Now, can we talk about those things that are inherently racist and have really held theater back and then also talk about ways in which maybe some of those things can change? 

Zi Alikhan [00:30:28] Looking at how those plays were made and looking at how those plays interacted not only with the subject matter, but also with audiences — being able to sit here in the present and look at the past in that way in an analytical way, I think will teach us how to make plays moving forward. I have to say, as somebody who really likes to direct old plays, I don’t perceive that every person who wrote a play before the 21st century was aware of their privilege. The question I always want to ask first and foremost when I’m thinking about some of these old plays, “is there a way to right the wrongs of this play?” Is there is it valuable to even try? And I’m somebody who comes from a social science background and so everything to me is all about scientific method and experimentation and like hypothesizing and, you know, nothing is really a success or failure because everything is going to teach us something, you know, moving forward. But I do think it’s it’s wise when we’re looking at these plays of the past to say, “what is my hypothesis about how this play can continue to have conversation with the present and the future?” And if I already know that it is not having a constructive conversation, then I think that this play can live in the past. I think that we can we can deem this play as being out of conversation with what we’re what we’re making today, but I do think that there is opportunity in some of these old plays for us to have deep conversation with them. And I don’t want to say right the wrongs of of some of these plays, but I definitely want to say examine the wrongs of some of these plays and recontextualize the wrongs of some of these plays, which I think oftentimes will actually magnify what’s so fucked up about them. What it often does is it distances us or really focuses us on places that we think we love and that have become cultural canon. It makes us look at those and say, well, why is that canon? Why is that something that we’re teaching in school? As we start to reshape the canon and as we start to reshape, you know, the work that we’re making forward, I think it’s somewhat important to reexamine the problems of past plays. And, you know, to be able to kind of knock some of them down a peg or two as well as to illuminate the beauty that lives in some of them, to also de-escalate some of them from kind of the the high station they sit on. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:33:18] Are there very particular things that you can point to that have inherently been racist, the way that people have been treated within the theater community? 

Zi Alikhan [00:33:29] I can think about my own personal education and a lot of the educational environments that I’ve worked in. And I never encountered a role model that looked like me in education that had any of my experiences. Nor was I approached with a text either written by or depicting a person like me in my entire educational experience. And that was really detrimental. I remember my first day of teaching college. I had five MENASA students in my class and I cried because I burst into tears because I had never gotten to see a community like that for myself. You know, I was very lucky to have another South Asian classmate who is one of my greatest friends to this day. But part of me is like our friendship was born from the fact that, like, we really needed each other in in that experience. You know, as we were playing all of these Rodgers and Hammerstein and Tennessee Williams characters that had nothing, you know, I played Rolf in The Sound of Music in college and set of and it’s just I don’t know that one. It’s crazy to me to think like, you know, my teacher at that time was one of my mentors. And I would love to go to the head of my department in that program and say, “What do you actually think I had to learn from playing Rolf?” And by the same token, I watched a lot of white women in that class play Lady Tiang from the from The King and I and play Lantau and Tuptim from The King and I and I think that race was just played within a very fast and loose way, that identity and that lived experience had nothing to do with material. And I think that that is the antithesis of what’s true. It’s why it’s important that if Hermione is Black, that that is a story that becomes full and rounded and is deeply investigated in the creating of Hermione. I look at something like Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and see that there has never been a MENASA principal in that show and that, you know, I know from firsthand sources that they had an entire call when they were casting the original production of that show for MENASA performers and didn’t cast any of them. And it just makes me… 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:35:59] Oof. 

Zi Alikhan [00:35:59] Yeah, it it is it’s infuriating. I’m reading both Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens and Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings right now, which is like to me like a real strong double header of of books to be reading about my own personal identity as it relates to this country. But both of these books really point to the fact that — I’m speaking specifically about like being MENASA and like that identity, which is a very specific thing — But those books and my lived experience really point to the fact that in this country I’m either dangerous or invisible. And I think that the theater has a tendency to reify that for me and for people like me. And so I don’t doubt that it does similar things to a lot of other performers of color and a lot of other communities of color. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:36:58] I’d love you to plug anything that you have going on and anything you’re excited about. 

Zi Alikhan [00:37:05] Well, I just started a new job. I just was named the inaugural artistic director and fellow artist repertory theater out in Portland. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:37:16] What! I just got chills. 

Zi Alikhan [00:37:16] Yeah, yeah. So yeah. So I’m going to be splitting my time between New York and Portland for the next couple of years. It’s like a full time leadership position that they specifically carved out for an artist of color. And a big part of this job is I’m going to be starting an initiative out there in Portland called DNA: Oxygen, which is dedicated to development and production of new work that’s generated by, led by and featuring artists of color. So it’s really exciting that I get to go out there and not only be taking up space in that way, but really be taking up space in the service of carving out space for other artists as both an affinity space, but also as like a producing pipeline. And so to be able to do that, I think what I love, you know, in the week of work that I’ve done with this theater is that they are taking so many active steps towards disruption, and it comes in labor practices, to the fact that they have a promise to whether you are part of a union or not, to honor union wages for every actor and every technician and every designer on their stage, which I just think I’m like that is that is a way, that is a process, that’s a product of dismantling the gatekeeping. You know, it’s things like that. You know, the artistic director that I’m working for is the first Latinx artistic director of a regional theater in America, which I think is, you know, there are now quite a few, which is amazing. But Dámaso is the first and to be the first to serve this position — to be the first to be starting this initiative, this arm of this organization is really huge. So I’m really looking forward to that. That’s like my big pitch and my big thing that’s that’s happening. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:39:22] I’m so fucking pumped for you. I just I feel like there’s just so there are so many deserving artists, but you are absolutely one of them. And I feel so by proxy, I feel lighter and happier. 

Zi Alikhan [00:39:35] Well, thank you so much, you guys. This has been really cool. 

Pegah Yazd [00:39:40] Yeah. One more question. Oh, yeah. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:39:43] Oh yeah. This is really important. 

Pegah Yazd [00:39:44] We have a really good question. We want to know what your favorite show is. And me, before you answer, I want to tell you that ours is Newsies. Slash mine. Ours. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:39:53] OK, that’s Pegah’s favorite show. But it was a musical that we were able to watch together. And just like I had this sort of I hadn’t seen it in years, the movie. And wow, it’s great. But it’s actually but it’s but it’s also problematic and also one of the only musicals I’ve seen that’s actually probably about activism, so it was really funny. 

Zi Alikhan [00:40:20] I’ve actually I’ve never seen newsies in any capacity. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:40:24] Yes, hell yes.

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:40:27] You have an assignment coming up. 

Zi Alikhan [00:40:28] Maybe maybe Pegah is really the expert here and I am not. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:40:33] It’s good. It’s a really good.

Zi Alikhan [00:40:34]  I’m certain of that. I’m going to answer this question in a couple of ways. My favorite old play is probably Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov. My favorite contemporary American plays that I just think really loved… It’s so hard to say favorite if I had to pick some. I love John by Annie Baker. I love Gloria by Brandon Jacobs Jenkins, Suicide Forest by Haruna Lee. The Let The Right One In that John Tiffany.. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:41:04] Oh at St. Annes? 

Zi Alikhan [00:41:07]  And that was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:41:12] And I got a ticket and I had to give it up to work at you know where. Oh yeah. 

Zi Alikhan [00:41:15] Oh no. That was a mistake. You should have quit your job. My favorite musicals are A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. Hello Again by Michael John LaCuisa. I also love Carousel and the Music Man. Oh, and my guilty pleasure. It’s not even a guilty pleasure. It’s fucking phenomenal. Right now, there’s a musical that a few of my friends were in at all three last year written by the incomparable Grace McLean called In the Green. Julia, if you don’t know In the Green, you would be absolutely devastatingly obsessed with it. It’s about a medieval mystic named Hildegard von Bingen. And it’s like about her like life essentially in like cloistered with a mentor inside of a like a it’s not a monastery. I think it was like an area in a monastery where they were essentially put into like a holding cell. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:42:21] This sounds like it was written for me. 

Zi Alikhan [00:42:21] IT is it’s this incredible examination of trauma and self acceptance and and all kinds of things. And it’s really beautiful. And also, Dave Malloy’s Octet was also really, really life changing. So I didn’t answer with just one. No, I’m also I’m also working on like three musicals..

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:42:43] I’m not a favorites person. Ooh, you are?

Zi Alikhan [00:42:45]  I’m working on three new musicals right now that are all absolutely unbelievable. And I just want to give a plug, especially to my collaborator, Manik Choksi. He and I are developing a new adaptation of like the old ancient Hindu epic, The Ramyun. And we are in residence at Ars Nova right now developing that. Yeah. And he is just a bad ass. And when we can finally, like, put pieces of that into the world, it’s going to, like, completely make people flip. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:43:19]  I am so, so excited for you. 

Zi Alikhan [00:43:21] Yeah, me too. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:43:22] Well, it’s been such a pleasure. I’m not surprised at all. And hopefully there will be some opportunities to meet in person and soon. 

Zi Alikhan [00:43:32] I think so. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:43:33] And if not, we’ll have to go to Portland. 

Zi Alikhan [00:43:35] Yeah, I would, yeah. 

Pegah Yazd [00:43:37] Thank you so much. 

Zi Alikhan [00:43:38] Thank you guys. This has been great. 

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:43:52] Thanks for listening to the second episode of Forever Neighbors or really making this podcast, guys, 

Pegah Yazd [00:43:59] you can find the transcript of this episode, links to Zi’s work and some of the books and plays and other works he mentioned on our website at

Julia Joyce-Barry [00:44:10] You are the best and thanks for being such good neighbors. 

Zi’s Website:

Books mentioned:

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