Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre, takes the word "public" very seriously. The theatre is surrounded by a mixture of communities speaking English and Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. Over the past decade, Bobgan has focused on creating content by and for all of Cleveland's residents, inviting a diverse range of actors, professional and amateur, to tell their own stories in their own words.
"For the past few years the majority of the plays we have done have been written by people of colour – African-American, Latino and Middle Eastern," says Bobgan, whose latest original production, And Then We Met …, is a bilingual Arabic-English performance featuring a cast of Arabic speakers.
The play, which is based on the performers' own experiences, explores themes of identity and community, including the struggle to balance family responsibilities with individual needs and the challenges of honouring cultural traditions while adjusting to life in a new environment.
And Then We Met … is the second performance staged by Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi, a programme founded in 2018 by the theatre and leading figures in the local Arab community. It aims to offer Cleveland's Arabic-speaking residents an opportunity to engage with and take part in the theatre's output, as well as encouraging non-Arabic residents of the city to connect with the stories of Middle Eastern performers and learn more about their lives.
The play features 11 performers from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine, from Christian, Druze, Shia and Sunni backgrounds. The diverse group of first-generation Arab-Americans are united by their mother language. Bobgan stresses that the play does not seek to present the performers as a homogenous group, but to explore their individual stories and find common ground.
"Everyone here is an authentic representation of who they are themselves, and that's their responsibility to the process – it's not to represent a group of people," he says, explaining that during rehearsals they often uncover differences not only in language and dialect, but in cultural traditions and religious practices.
Working in small groups, participants were invited to share personal stories and experiences from before and after moving to America, using these as the basis for improvised scenes. "Some stories start resonating with the group," Bobgan explains. "For example on three occasions, different people in the group created scenes in which there was a conflict between a child and a parent. The parent had come over to America explicitly to create a better life for their child and the child now doesn't want to be a doctor or an engineer, they want to be an artist. This scene just kept appearing, so then you begin to think, 'OK, this is a core topic: what is my obligation to my family, and what is my obligation to myself?'"
And Then We Met … was inspired by a story told by a Lebanese performer who recalled how, during the civil war, people fleeing Israeli air strikes on Beirut sought refuge in her mountain village. "She had never met a Christian or a Muslim in her life – she's Druze – and she was very afraid to meet these people," says Bobgan. "She was a young child … What she saw was the elders in the community and her own parents welcoming these outsiders into the village, and Druze, Christians and Muslims all working together. And this completely changed everything. So that story became the foundational story for this piece."
The play features four families from different religious and political backgrounds who end up taking shelter together. Initially, they are full of prejudices and distrust, but as they get to know each other they begin to realise how much they have in common. The narrative follows one character from each family, each of whom finds themselves struggling with questions of identity, legacy and duty. The group will perform two shows at the Arab American Museum in Michigan on Saturday, the day after International Mother Language Day, a worldwide annual observance that promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity.
The play's mixture of classical Arabic and English dialogue is translated using supertitles, allowing the audience to follow the production. "We get a lot of audience members who don't speak Arabic or who are not Arabs and it's such a good opportunity to tell these stories to them because they realise that a lot of our problems are very similar," says Omar Kurdi, a Jordanian member of the cast and one of the founding members of Masrah Cleveland Al-Arabi.
“We’re not the scary people that they hear about on the news. We have our cultural problems, like every culture has its own problems, but we also have so much to celebrate, like every other culture has to celebrate as well.”
Kurdi studied musical theatre in Oman and Jordan, encouraged by his father, but as he grew older, his father made it clear that he was against the idea of his son forging a career as a performer. Kurdi, who now works for the family business in Cleveland, says the play's theme of personal fulfilment versus family duty resonates. "I definitely think Middle Eastern Arab culture is very family-orientated and if you look at western culture it's more focused on the individual. I think the right thing is to have a balance of both," he says.
Participating in the play offers the cast an opportunity to tell stories that are rooted in Arab culture, but that do not reinforce Hollywood stereotypes or perpetuate cliches, he adds. "It's very important to seize the opportunity to own the narrative and to create that cultural conversation that we are in need of," he says. "We're using this platform to be represented and to bring our community closer to other communities."
And Then We Met … will be performed at the Arab American Museum in Michigan on Saturday, February 22