After 9/11, a lot of people who look a certain way have been profiled … we’re seen as terrorists or threats,” says Wajahat Ali, a native Californian of Pakistani descent. “I wanted to peel away those layers and show who these people really are.” The first-time playwright and first-year law student, who was elected social chair of UC Berkeley’s Muslim-American Student Association just in time for 9/11, experienced the hypocrisy and hatred of bigotry firsthand, which made him critical of both the right-wing and left-wing point of view. “Everybody thought Berkeley was a den of [Islamic] radicalism,” he recalls.
Ali’s stage debut, The Domestic Crusaders — a two-act drama about a Pakistani-American family spanning three generations — presents Muslims not as monolithic stereotypes, but as real people with a range of human expression. Originally penned as a short story for a UC Berkeley writing class taught by Ishmael Reed, The Domestic Crusaders eventually grew into a much longer work. Ali was encouraged to develop his story into a full-length play by Reed, a noted playwright himself, who has become the project’s biggest cheerleader. “This play’s gonna be a classic,” Reed predicts, comparing Ali’s characters to the Loman family in Death of a Salesman. What most impressed Reed was the way Ali was able to capture what is often omitted from the cross-cultural dialogue on the subject of American Muslims. “He says what’s unspoken,” he says, speculating that Ali’s honest, objective look at Islamic life in this country will attract praise as well as criticism. “It’s amazing how he’s able to come up with all these inter-generational stories,” Reed says of his protégé. “He’s only 24.”
Despite the obvious relevance of the subject matter, “It’s not propaganda,” explains Ali, who instead chose to focus on cultural, marital, and generational conflict, issues which he feels aren’t limited to Muslims or Pakistanis by any means. “It’s not ethnocentric,” he adds, noting that, as is the case with any family, “there are a lot of secrets.”
Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (2 p.m. and 8 p.m.) at Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Theatre, 2025 Addison St. $20-$35. DomesticCrusaders.com or call 510-673-3759.