Conversations about equity and access extend beyond the movement for racial justice. People of color have historically been excluded from mainstream narratives. But Louisville’s Commonwealth Theatre Center is trying to change that by increasing representation in its programming.
Hallie Dizdarevic is the center’s director for creative engagement.
“It’s incredibly important that people see themselves represented in cultural spaces,” Dizdarevic said. “The impetus is on cultural institutions, to seek out the folks that are not attending their performances and figure out why.”
On Thursday, CTC unveiled its latest project exploring the experiences of underrepresented youth.
“Zaynab’s Night of Destiny” is more than a children’s book. It’s an audio-visual experience that incorporates narration and natural sound effects, like footsteps in the sand, to create an immersive listening experience. The work also includes Islamic illustrations created Saudi-Arabian artist Hend Al Mansour.
The story centers around a Muslim girl from Cairo, Egypt, who has trouble fitting in after immigrating to Louisville with her family. That’s until she embarks on a quest to find a sense of belonging and, in the process, learns to embrace her true, authentic self.
Egyptian-American playwright, Denmo Ibrahim, authored and narrated the imaginative work.
“Children have a way of not wanting to speak out their fears. But, I feel like what [Zaynab] does is she really articulates her greatest fear that maybe she actually doesn’t belong here ━ and then what?” Ibrahim said. “It takes a lot of bravery to articulate that, and she does it in the confines of her closet, i.e. the darkness of the Sahara Desert.”
CTC conducted outreach and held workshops in partnership with the Nur IslaYasmine Jumaa | wfpl.orgmic School of Louisville, Newcomer Academy, Louisville Youth Group and Imagine Blind Players. Ibrahim drew from those first-hand experiences and stories to shape Zaynab’s narrative.
“The kids I met were brave, they were courageous. They were unafraid to share their voice,” Ibrahim said.
“Something that bugged us about some other literature was the idea of tokenism,” Dizdarevic added. “We really wanted to avoid that what we wanted to find were the intersections of experience among people who might have experienced othering.”
In the book, Ibrahim touches on themes like assimilation, spirituality, the intersectionality of race and ethnicity ━ and the importance of cultural acceptance.
“I wanted to place the celebratory month of Ramadan center ━ and explore some of the stories [Zaynab] would have known in her family as ways of finding her way. That’s what faith does. It gives us a touchstone to figure out how to do something or not.”
The audio-immersive event is slated to tour local schools throughout the upcoming school year. Dizdarevic said these visits will include resource guides for teachers to engage students in conversations about different cultures and their customs, foods and religions to raise awareness about and celebrate differences in humans.
“We’ll be scheduling workshops, sending links and making sure that the teachers know how to facilitate those conversations about culture and intersectionality,” Dizdarevic said. “And then, one of the biggest parts is collecting [students’] stories that are inspired by this piece.”
Grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art will go toward subsidizing the school visits. Dizdarevic said come fall, CTC will launch a campaign to get the word out about how schools can secure additional funding to host “Zaynab’s Night of Destiny”.
Specifics are not yet available. But, families will also be able to purchase the book and accompanying audio through the center’s website.