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Festival features 'Domestic Crusaders'

By Suzanne LaFetra
Correspondant

Wajahat Ali didn't set out to write an earthshaking play. The Berkeley student was taking a short story course from Pulitzer Prize nominee Ishmael Reed. When his professor pulled him aside and told him he was a natural playwright, Ali couldn't believe it. "I thought it was pure nonsense," Ali says. Reed encouraged Ali to write a Muslim-American response to 9-11. "All I wanted to do was pass a class," says Ali, who succeeded in doing much more than that.

Coached by Ishmael Reed and his wife, Carla Blank, Ali's assignment grew into the original play "Domestic Crusaders." Selections from the play will be performed at the Oakland Art & Soul Festival during Labor Day weekend.

Carla Blank has been working with young people in theater for more than 15 years, and is the director of "Domestic Crusaders." Ali's talent stands out to her, and she feels his work is very promising. "For a first play, it's incredibly ready to go," Blank says.

"Domestic Crusaders" chronicles one day in the life of a Muslim-American family in a post 9-11 world. The play's political messages are strong, but the context is more about the human interactions between three generations of the Pakistani-American family's squabbles.

Blank was drawn to the play because of its honesty. She tells of the auditions for the play, and the reaction of the mostly Muslim-American applicants. "They were just amazed that he was brave enough to say the things he was saying, and that it sounded so real, the way a family would be talking," she says.

"Domestic Crusaders" draws back the curtain on a Pakistani-American family, showing the complicated world of pressures in being both Muslim and American today. "It's a contemporary play, a very important play," says Blank. "To be immersed in the point of view of someone who is Muslim-American is a rare opportunity," she says.

Kim McMillon is one of the producers of the Oakland Literature Expo, part of the Oakland Art & Soul Festival. She invited Ali to present his play in the coveted slot just prior to the American Book Awards.

"Domestic Crusaders" represents Muslim-American voices that have not been heard because we are living in a country whose media is censored, says McMillon. The play is just one example of the diverse offerings in the three days of literature events at the Art & Soul Festival that will encompass all genres and cultural groups.

To date, "Domestic Crusaders" has been performed only three times. But Blank says she thinks the play will go on to be produced. "The humor is very strong," she says. Ali says he tried to imbue the play with an almost comic book, exaggerated tone. Even the title hints at a "Fantastic Four" image according to Ali.

"In the largely Pakistani-American audience at the premiere of the play, people were roaring and falling off their chairs," says Blank. "It's the kind of audience most original playwrights would kill to be able to contact," Blank says, laughing.

Ali is a California native, but he's often asked how long ago he came to America. "I'm not sure if it's an insult or a compliment," he says. Ali self-identifies as a practicing Muslim.

"'I'm practicing' doesn't mean I'm pious, but it's always been a strong part of my identity," he says. Ali found himself working overtime after Sept. 11, 2001, because he was on the Muslim Student Association Board at Cal. "I had to work, work, work, and present Islam in the best ways I could," he says.

Although Ali has never been a direct victim of religious hatred, he says that prejudice is everywhere. "As a Muslim-American, you're pretty much hated by everyone, just no one wants to say it," says Ali.

The strength of Domestic Crusaders is in Ali's realistic, humorous depiction of a family with competing desires. Ali pokes fun at all sides of the political and family drama. "He's very fair," says Carla Blank, "Wajahat hits everybody." Everyone is fair game, and all three generations of the Pakistani-American family are depicted, warts and all. "My main point was to make sure the characters were real," Ali says.

The young playwright hopes that his play brings out the larger interpersonal themes in addition to the poignant and sometimes hilarious political jabs.

"It's not a rant," says Ali. "Domestic Crusaders is a play written to show human beings being human beings, with all their foibles." Ali hopes that his work will touch everyone. "It doesn't matter if you're black or white, male or female," he says of the audience, "I want them to come away knowing these living and breathing, passionate and flawed human beings who are just like themselves."

Suzanne LaFetra is a Berkeley writer. Contact her at suzlafetra@yahoo.com