By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Lots of productions schedule a talkback or two, but Epic Theatre Ensemble is especially committed to making its latest show a learning experience. Every performance of Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven
, Russell Davis’ play about Iranians and Americans colliding in a small town, is followed by a post-show discussion of the incendiary plot.
There’s bound to be a response to Edna, an ultra-conservative woman who’s irked to discover that her twentysomething son has invited Mahida, an Iranian woman, to spend the night on her couch. Edna gets even more irritated when Mahida’s militant brother knocks on her door. She’s immediately suspicious, and when he starts deriding the United States, she counters with a Red State stream of political and religious opinions.
What happens next could get anyone talking.
Michele Pawk, the Tony award-winning actress who plays Edna, started arguing with the play this summer, when she read the script as part of a workshop.
“I’m fairly liberal, so for me, part of the reason to take the play was because I’m so different from Edna,” she says. “At first, I made judgments, but then I fell in love with her. Now I don’t see her as ignorant: I see her as innocent. There are a lot of people who only have one source of news or information. If Fox News is your only outlet, then you’re going to see that point of view as reality. If CNN is your only source, then you’ll have that bent.”
After weeks of rehearsals and performances, Pawk has learned she shares some of Edna’s blind spots. Speaking with her Iranian-American co-stars, for instance, made her recognize her own biases. “Before this, it was easier for me to lump all of Iran together,” she explains. “I wasn’t really working to get a more complete perspective, and I would say, ‘Oh, you all support Ahmadinejad.’ But my friends said, ‘Oh, we don’t. A lot of us don’t.’ And that showed me that it’s easy to hear biases coming out of every circle, on the left or the right. Just because I consider myself liberal and open, that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of making presumptions.”
To that end, the play has affected Pawk’s behavior. “It’s informed the way I read the newspaper and participate in discussions,” she says. “It’s changed the way I listen.”
If all goes well, the post-show discussions at Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven
will be filled with people like Pawk—people who engage with the Middle East differently because of what happens on stage.
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor