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"Close to Home" builds beneath the oak

Uprising Theatre's first developmental workshop tells the story of a trans Arab girl falling into a new, chosen family.

Playwright Sharifa Yasmin tried to make the ending of her last show, "The Devils Between Us," an exhale for the audience—heavy, storm-soaked, but necessary. The story took place in her home state of South Carolina, and she folded her own experiences, her trauma of growing up as a queer, Arab transwoman, into the piece.

It was healing. It was important. But pain wasn't the only thing she wanted the world to know about the trans experience.

With her new play "Close to Home," which has its first public reading April 24 after a workshop with Uprising Theatre Co., Yasmin wanted to write about trans people's joy and happiness. Yes, the characters still have to work through some trauma—she couldn't not acknowledge that queerness can beget unjust hurt—but the story is about overcoming that.

The play begins under the winding branches of a 200-year-old southern live oak, inspired by the even older Angel Oak Tree on Johns Isle. Here, Colt meets Zara, a trans Arab girl who was drawn to the tree's massive, peaceful presence. When he finds she has nowhere else to go, he takes her in and enlists the help of an acquaintance named Kaysar to take care of her.

Yasmin says, "'Close to Home' is what I want my future to be, or what life could have been like in high school, if just the right thing happened where I was in a supportive environment versus an environment that encouraged me to stifle my identity. I guess the easiest way to say that is this [play] is what I want the world to potentially be."

Theater as the most collaborative art form

"Close to Home"'s journey from South Carolina to Minnesota is, like most theater in the past year, through a video call. At the same time, the pandemic allowed Uprising Theatre's artistic director Shannon TL Kearns to unite a group of artists he never would have been able to host in person: Yasmin, of course; New York City-based director Sivan Battat and dramaturg Adam Ashraf Elsayigh; and a cast and crew from New York, Virginia, Connecticut, and Illinois.

Kearns met Yasmin in October 2020 when they were both on a virtual Mixed Blood Theatre panel featuring trans playwrights, he as a the moderator and she as one of the five guests. A few months later, when Kearns decided Uprising Theatre was going to host a 20-hour development workshop—with more to come, he hopes—he sent her a message seeing if she was working on anything that might be a good fit. At the time, Yasmin was on the cusp of finishing a draft of "Close to Home."

The invitation to work with Uprising Theatre seemed like fate.

Kearns says, "Uprising's really trying to support Sharifa with whatever she wants to do in this piece. We don't have an investment with what this looks like, right? [Our workshop] doesn't mean you have to hire our team to do this work; it's, 'Who is the best team to do the work?'"

For Yasmin, that means collaborating with Elsayigh who, although a close friend, thinks very differently than she does and is willing to push her in ways that are uncomfortable but necessary. She chose Battat because their directing style was opposite Yasmin's. In short, Yasmin looked for people that could bring different voices to the conversation. Her play may have made it through its first draft, but she calls theater the most collaborative art form in the world for a reason.

Already after the first session, she cut 27 pages (which was preceded by mental shrieks of "What have I done?! What have I done?!" as the story clocked in at 2 hours and 40 minutes). What Yasmin really wanted the workshop for, however, was to add nuance to one of the characters. Especially with marginalized characters, she says, there's a detrimental tendency to build on tropes.

"Something that meant so much to me was being in this workshop after the first reading and just hearing so many people compliment and be so excited by how complex these characters are and how human they felt. That's all I ever wanted," Yasmin says. "We need to have trans artists tell trans stories. That needs to be a priority in the industry, and I hope that people listen to this company and what they're trying to do and value it because it's life changing."

A more focused mission

Kearns founded Uprising Theatre in 2015 with the premise of pairing social justice productions with involvement opportunities post-show. The 2019-2020 season was all about gun control, but other productions focused on topics like hate crimes, death row, and body autonomy. Starting in the back half of 2020, though—or what would have been before COVID-19 changed everything—Kearns narrowed the company's mission to focusing on uplifting trans and nonbinary artists and experiences.

The company had already been doing some education programs for trans people, such as writing or acting workshops, but it felt disconnected from the mainstage work. "I wanted to bring everything under one umbrella," he says. "We were already working with trans and nonbinary plays, and that's my background, and that really felt like the next iteration of Uprising Theatre and a place we could add a lot of value."

After all, as both he and Yasmin well know, just because you love theater doesn't mean it's perfect. For Yasmin, her first role in theater freed her from judgment and scrutiny, despite it simply being "a really dumb kid who did dumb things that were funny" in a high school adaptation of "Peter Pan." As she continued taking theater more seriously, though, she saw how the theater culture she grew up in was dominated by White, authoritative, masculine voices.

The only way Yasmin could fit into that role was to conform. She avoided the sun to get paler, and as this was before she transitioned, she grew a beard and pitched her voice lower during rehearsals.

After she transitioned, however, she learned to see the beauty of her leadership style, which was built on her femininity, compassion, empathy, and joy. She says, "That's why I worked so hard to become a director, and it's why I work so hard now to be a writer, because we now have the opportunity to change what stories are being told and whose voices are going to be on stage.".

Kearns adds that a myth of the meritocracy continues to pervade theater, both from a general diversity standpoint and a trans community perspective. "If your work does get chosen then there might be a lack of trans directors available, or the theater might struggle to find trans actors, not because they don’t exist but because their talent hasn’t been nurtured and compensated," he says. "It becomes a larger ecosystem issue."

Interwoven identities

"Close to Home"'s Zara is a trans girl, but the play doesn't bring attention to that, Yasmin says. The only time Zara's gender orientation becomes a true focal point is during a sex talk. Like other parts of Yasmin's works, this inspiration is taken straight from her childhood, but this time, it's what she wished would have happened.

In the play, Zara's conversation is with another queer person. Yasmin, who transitioned when she was 27, didn't get that. Instead, she was told to join the cisgender boys in her health class's separated sexual reproduction unit.

"I remember everyone was so confused why I was so passionate and so fighting to be included in this sex talk, and no one could get their head around it—why it meant so much to me," she says, adding that she didn't have the words she has now to explain her identity. "I never got that talk, and it took years and years of experience for me to get the same amount of information that I could have had in that class if they had taken a second to acknowledge and recognize a non-cisgender, heterosexual student."

The questions Yasmin has Zara ask are from Zara's perspective, not a cisgender audience's. While this may seem obvious, that isn't always the case for plays.

During the Mixed Blood panel, Yasmin says, one of the questions she answered was about how much obligation trans playwrights had to explain trans identity to cisgender people in their works. Yasmin says they owe nothing, and her off-handed manner only emphasizes the strength of her belief even more. At the same time, the answers were across the board.

"In the beginning of my writing, I had always been really focused on the audience," Yasmin says, reflecting. She was a director before being a playwright, and all of her training had been from that angle. "When it came to 'Close to Home,' I think the biggest thing that I wanted to adapt [from my previous writing] was that I just wanted to tell the story that I want to tell."

"This story is so focused on these marginalized people, and I always want to express how that informs their experiences and never shy away from it," she continues. "But I also want the audience have a good understanding that yes, these are humans, these are people. Their gender identity and their sexual orientation is a part of their experiences, and it absolutely informs their experiences, but they have so many experiences beyond that as well."

Note: For those who cannot attend the live reading of "Close to Home," it will be available as a recording for at least 48 hours afterward.


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