After the Rodney King riots in 1997, J. Paul Preseault wanted to address racial tensions in America through performing arts and started TRIBES Project, a theater-based nonprofit.
As Muslims became a sharper target of racism post-9/11, TRIBES Project facilitated an improvised performance that developed into the 2004 play, “Blanket of Fear.”
Presault is showing “Blanket of Fear” again at the Neptune Theater this Thursday, June 30 for free. Why?
“It is much more relevant now than it was ever before,” says Preseault, who directed the play. “At the time [of its release], many Americans felt like it was so far-fetched that an American-born second grade teacher would be incarcerated because she happened to be married to a Middle Eastern man. But the play shows that this is not far-fetched at all.”
The plot, though not based on a true story, is plausible and challenges the assumption that only Muslims are impacted by Islamophobia.
“Blanket of Fear” follows three women: Julia (played by Amy Mayes), a white American teacher and Muslim convert who married a biracial, Iranian, African American man; Fatima (Fereshte “Angel” Taherazar), the Iranian mother of Julia’s husband; and Evelyn (Dior “Diva” Davenport), the Afro-Cuban lawyer and goes through her own prejudices about the Muslims she is defending.
Julia is incarcerated by the United States government. She and her husband are believed to be part of a terrorist regime. The lawyer of the play, Evelyn, questions the innocence of her client Julia, who attends the same mosque with her husband Hassan, yelling, “You are guilty! You have to be guilty! It’s a mosque!”
“The play leaves you with the question of ‘Who do you trust?'” says Preseault. “What is the truth and what is fact? This play shows the story of three women and how they are all weaved together.”
The play also showcases improvised music ensembles by composer Gretta Harley, vocalist Monica Barroga and saxophonist Kate Olson.
Fereshte “Angel” Taherazar, who was born in Iran and fled the Iranian Revolution, plays Fatima, mother of Hassan, who is incarcerated on charges of terrorism.
After the Pulse shootings in Orlando, Taherazar expressed that she “was completely terrified to be in this play.”
“I have lived, survived, and escaped all the wars in Iran,” she says. “I feel there is so much more hatred now against us than there was 10 years ago. I am bringing my culture to the stage, and felt like I am being an open target for a crazy person to get angry and shoot up the venue.”
With the pump up of fear through the media against Islam, Michael Helde, assistant director of the play, explains that TRIBES Project and the cast of “Blanket of Fear,” “wanted to explore the use of fear as coercive power.”
“There are no firm answers as to what exactly happened. The audience needs to decide for themselves. Oftentimes, in the name of national security, we seem to lose perception of nuance, and that is a very dangerous condition to be in,” says Helde. “And we wanted to show the audience that the people who stand accused by the systems that protect us are human beings, just like we are.”
Exposure to a complex story line can get push people out of their comfort zones, adds Preseault, who says, in response to Orlando, that “so many of our shows end without any neat solutions.”
Since their founding in 1997, TRIBES Project has kept up with the theme of dissecting racial injustice through performing arts. That year, after Rodney King’s brutal beating, racism in America “had become so undeniable, that there were no more nice words to use,” remembers Preseault, who has been a professional director, writer, producer, and actor for more than 20 years in Seattle, New York, Chicago and abroad.
When he cast 11 students of color from Ballard High School in a play that formed through improv of experiences they had through race and cultural identity, the performances generated a profound response.
The students were raw — unbridled in their angst and honesty.
“What better population of people to address racial issues than high school students?” asks Presault, who has spent the next two decades producing TRIBES Project performances with young people centering racial and cultural experience.
Since its founding TRIBES Project has performed in front of 55,000 people in the Northwest, British Columbia, and across the world in Mexico, England, Kosovo and South Africa.