Written by Victoria Myers
Photography by Tess Mayer
April 13th, 2017
In J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny Glass, disillusioned and searching for meaning, takes up residency on her family’s living room sofa where she repeatedly recites the Jesus Prayer. Searching for faith has always been a major theme in art, yet Franny Glass remains one of the few female searchers. In Zayd Dohrn’s new play The Profane at Playwrights Horizons, we meet another young woman searching for faith: Emina, who comes home from college with an interest in Islam and a new fiancé from a conservative Muslim family, much to the chagrin of her own liberal, secular family. Emina is portrayed by actress Tala Ashe, who has previously appeared in Trolius and Cressida and The Who and the What, among others. We recently sat down with Tala to discuss her process for The Profane, typecasting, and normalizing stories with Middle Easterners in theatre.
At the moment, what for you is the most fascinating aspect about your character, Emina?
Lately, I’ve touched upon what wasn’t initially clear to me: her sense of surety. That has been really interesting to me, especially since she’s 21. I don’t have that relationship to surety; I’m quite an over-thinker. Both with her exploration of religion and her interest in Islam, and also in deciding to marry this guy at 21, at first I was like, it’s just a young person being dumb, I don’t relate to that, right? Actually, I think what she has is this sense of surety that was given to her by her parents, that has manifested in a way that they’re not particularly supportive of, but actually is the same thing. The way that her father stands by what he believes is something that she also does, and not thoughtlessly. I think she’s quite thoughtful, but when she arrives it’s something that she feels rooted in. She’s going to stand behind it. That’s been an interesting crack that I’ve seen in who she is that feels different from me and feels interesting because I envy, at a certain level, that relationship to surety.
One of the things I wanted to ask you about was her choice of getting married so young. Coming from her socio-economic background that’s…
It’s super rare, and seems like a very rebellious choice. How much did you have to kind of work out a backstory for that?
[At first] I thought, “This is crazy, this is young love.” I think I put a lot of judgment on it, which is never good to do as an actor. I do think there are those stories of people that meet at 21 who work out and who last. I think what she’s found in Sam rings deeply true to her—him as a person. I think the way that he allows her to vacillate between [being] a child and an adult. He’s really non-judgmental. He has his own secret we find out, but he seems like a really open person and I think that she recognizes that in him, and she recognizes that there’s something about where he comes from that really appeals to her. This sense of community is the other thing that I’ve tapped into with her. Even though she came from this very liberal intellectual family—her mother and sister are dancers, her father’s a writer—I don’t think she actually found an art form to tap into. There’s something missing in terms of that feeling of community that I get from the arts. Theatre is my church. Sam also represents that, and I think the religion represents that—the feeling of belonging. She sort of stumbled upon the connection with Islam two years ago, before we see her, and then not long after she met Sam. I think she’s thought about it a lot before [the events of the play] and made a decision and then brought it to them, which is an interesting order of events. It is still something tricky for me, I think, because of my own judgments on it. I do think it goes back to her relationship with surety and her thoughtfulness. She actually has a hard time articulating it in the play. It feels really right to her in a way that nothing else has felt right. I remember when I first did theatre and drama class in high school, there was something that dropped in. I wasn’t as sure about it as she was but that feeling is very powerful.
It’s interesting looking at this in relation to other stories of young people finding faith or exploring that. There is a collection of literature exploring that topic. Of course, they’re usually about boys.
Of course, always.
There’s Franny in Franny and Zooey. Is that canon of young people exploring faith something that you thought about?
I don’t know that that’s so much what I thought about. I certainly did a lot of research on Islam, and this is not my first time at the rodeo of playing a character who is Muslim. I have a sense of their religion. I feel like I have looked for articulation of that, and to your point, there’s not that many women out there. Also, the thing I’ve found is that it seems it’s really hard for people to articulate what it is about religion that calls to them. I understand that it’s a private thing, but for the purposes of research it’s been difficult. I’ve done a lot of research with really wonderful religious scholars, like Reza Aslan for instance, who’s really articulate about Islam in our country right now and religion in general, but he’s quite private about his personal faith. I wasn’t able to really find a lot of stories about finding religion and articulating it in a way that was helpful to me. I feel like my angle in was that I understand what it is to come upon something that lights you up, especially in the formative period of being a teenager and young adult.
How do you incorporate research into your process?
I try not to be too linear about it. I’m a very type A person, especially with this process. I had this sense that I needed to get in touch with a sense of ease and comfort, which may not seem like the most obvious choice. I saw that the character was anxious and has this news—she has all of these things that she has to deliver to her parents—but she also has that sense of surety and groundedness, and even that sense of coming home and the comfort of that. It might be false comfort, but that was sort of my way in with this process. I was like, “Just try to lean into the comfort and the ease of it,” which doesn’t come naturally to me.
I read a lot of books about Islam and it was helpful to read books that were about equivocating Islam today. There’s a wonderful book that’s a conversation between Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz. It occurred to me that I think Emina would have read about and been very intimately acquainted with arguments against Islam today. I did all that research, and then the other thing that I do pretty consistently is image work. As I’m going through the script, there are things that pop out of me. I do stream of consciousness of things that pop out of me in the play. Then I try to find images or paint images or create a visual world for myself that takes me out of my head a little bit.
One of the things I’ve been asking actresses lately is whether playing characters who are contemporary and where maybe the audience projects their own notion of, “playing somebody just like you,” causes more challenges for an actress than doing something where you’re in period dress?
I get that that conclusion could be drawn. If I’m playing Helen of Troy, which I did in the park this summer, there’s a little bit more, “Clearly, she’s not that.” There’s a little bit more assertive presumed character choice there. What’s interesting about this part is that it feels like me and it doesn’t feel like me. It’s a younger character than me, and as I get older, that starts to chafe a bit. I feel like I have a sort of hindsight that is helpful to playing those parts. I find [playing contemporary roles] easier. I think also because I’m really interested in contemporary stories and, as a Middle Easterner, I’m interested in showing more of those stories because I think we haven’t seen enough Middle Eastern stories that are normalizing and that are sort of close to who I am: a Midwestern girl who talks like this, but looks like this. I’m pretty passionate about bringing that in a pointed way. This play is about a Middle Eastern family, and showing a Middle Eastern family that maybe we haven’t seen portrayed in theatre or in the arts as much. I think normalizing Middle Eastern stories is really important right now. This is also the story of what I’m realizing now: I’m a person of color, I’m an actor of color. So it’s more exciting to me and it’s more important to me. Even in Shakespeare, actually, to see an Iranian-American play Helen of Troy I think is really interesting and important.
As an actress, when you’re in an industry that typecasts people and spends a lot of time telling people, “You’re good at this. You should audition for this, but you should not audition for this.” What has your journey been like to also develop as an artist and develop as a person?
It is challenging. When I first came to New York and first started auditioning for things, I remember meeting with agents and they’d be like, “You’re ethnically ambiguous and it’s great.” I was like, “What?” I hadn’t heard that term. I’m from Ohio and I went to a small private school that was really diverse, and in terms of acting, I didn’t feel like “the other.” In college I played Kate Keller in All My Sons. The world was open to me in terms of the color of my skin. It wasn’t until I came to New York that I was like, “Oh, I’m going out for a lot of women who wear hijabs.” I said yes to many things that I wouldn’t say yes to now, and as I’ve gotten older, I say no to a lot of things and a lot of projects where it feels like either there’s tokenism going on, or a lack of sensitivity or accuracy or authenticity to the character.
Who I am is a girl that grew up in Ohio, and there’s a tension in being told that I’m playing stories that I’m actually not, and [that I’m] less acquainted with. This play, in some ways, I understand, especially the family. I come from a very liberal family, intellectual Ohio State University, that was my Iranian-American community. A lot of these stories [that I’m asked to do], I don’t know more about than anybody would from doing the copious amount of research that I do. It’s been a challenge to sometimes feel like you’re brought into a room and expected to represent something that you actually don’t.
I think we could do better in theatre in terms of putting actors of color in places that we haven’t seen them. That has been hard. That speaks to the part of me that is American. I want to be part of those stories, not just the ones that are Shakespeare or the ones that are sort of in a mystical, magical world. Stories about Americans, but Americans that happen to look like this. Part of it is that some of it hasn’t been written.
I guess what I’m realizing is I’m forging a path that I didn’t think I would be, and I have no doubt that in 20 years it’s going to be better. This is happening in the Middle Eastern community now, but it is and has been happening with the Latino community and the Asian community and the African-American community for a long time. I feel like we’re a little bit behind in the fight, and it doesn’t help that we’re in a climate where a lot of brown people are depicted as terrorists. There’s a lot of stereotypical tales out there that I’m not interested in. I feel like the task at hand is to push stories forward that normalize. I think there’s a lot of different ways to do it. There are going to be growing pains, and many of my predecessors and actors around me have been dealing with it longer than I have, but it’s important. I think it’s a really important thing. I feel like for a while I resented that that was part of the gig because being an actor is hard enough. Now, I’m finding I’m embracing it. I’m also finding it really important to figure out how to have those conversations with theatres. It’s tricky, because I think there are good ways to do it and not good ways to do it. I would be really interested in having a Middle Eastern theatre forum in the next couple years like the Asian community did a few years ago, and to have an open conversation about what are really justified and prevalent issues in theatre and beyond.
I’ve realized that it’s kind of part and parcel with this work at times. It’s really lovely when it’s not. It’s really lovely when I’m able to just be an actor and not focus so heavily on issues of representation, but I also feel really capable of doing it, so I’m ready to engage and fail and try again.
How do you find ways to have agency over your career and make choices, especially because as an actress, you’re subjected to what’s available and what auditions come up?
Yes, it’s hard. It’s so hard, and I do think it’s a life’s work. When I read projects, sometimes things just come off as offensive and I go, “Nope, not doing it.” Other times there are things where I’m like, “There’s an interesting idea here. I don’t see any of the red flags. I think for this project to be successful it would need this and this, and need this kind of support.” Then sometimes, when I’m lucky, there’s a workshop or a reading, so I can see if that is important to the makers of that piece, and then sort of choose my own adventure from there. Sometimes you audition for something and you’re going off of the script and it can or cannot be everything that you had hoped.
I do think inside of that, my job is to continue to fight for what feels important to me, which is hard as a woman of color, but I think also just as a woman and as a youngish woman. I feel like you have to be more careful and more articulate in order to get what you want and articulate what’s important to you. In situations that I come up against where I’m like, “This isn’t right, this isn’t accurate, or this feels like tokenism in a way that I’m not interested in,” it’s tricky. I think it can label you as a difficult woman. More and more I care less and less, since it’s really important for me to speak up. I have a really hard time holding my tongue. It really eats away at me. I’m interested in being part of that conversation—not as a teacher, but just as a person. I know that I’m sensitive to certain things and it’s important for me to voice that.
How do you balance being an actress with also having a life and being a person in the world?
It’s hard. It’s important to have other things. I wish I wrote, because I think part of seeing stories that I’m more interested in seeing would be about creating them, and I’m really passionate about doing new work. I think it’s just important to have other things. I produce this podcast with my friend Therese called That’s What She Said. It’s conversations with women about love, and it’s been this really lovely thing that I’m just a small part of, but week after week, when we talk to these really amazing women and post these episodes and get the response that we’ve gotten, it widens my world. I think widening one’s world is really important because it’s easy to get tunnel vision in this career. There are so many heartbreaks that happen that can send you to dark places if you let them. I have a really good group of girlfriends who are really supportive for me. Living in New York has been helpful too. There’s something about being in the city, even though sometimes I’m very angry at the city. Walking through the streets, it feels very alive and gives me a perspective that is helpful to my work. But it’s incredibly hard, and there are still days where I desperately search for if there’s something else that would excite me in a way that acting still continues to do. It’s a really hard thing that we do, but it’s also something that I believe in. Onward for now.