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Interview with Zarinah Ali, Artistic Director at Realize Theatre Group

AliIn the last couple of years, obstacles faced by queer youth have become a nationally recognized issue. From bullying to abuse to suicide, these themes have been on the mind of Realize Theatre Group’s co-founder Zarinah Ali long before the creation of ‘It Gets Better’.

Ali and Taryn Smith founded the Realize Theatre Group in 2011 with the goal of creating conversation, encouraging analytical audiences, inspiring compassion where it’s least expected and discovering the truth in connecting. As a student at University of Illinois Chicago, Ali adapted Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a modern love story between two young women fighting to follow their hearts. With the creation of the theatre group and an adaptation of a classic play that was not only relevant to the goals of the organization but current events, there was a perfect platform for the run of JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Julie. Ali spoke with The L Stop about her inspiration, social justice and creating a space for real community conversation through theatre.

TLS-I want to start by talking to you a little bit about the Realize Theatre Group- you are co-founder and Artistic Director. You guys have done some amazing things, what inspired the creation of this group that made it different from others?

ZA– Taryn Smith (co-founder) and I when to UIC together and always talked about starting a theatre group focused on social justice work. Once we graduated I came to a point in my life where it was something that I could pursue and it was also a time where it was possible for her. We sat down and made a list of things we would like to give back to society, progress we wanted to see made, and also an understanding of people being in different places in their lives- being able to see or handle different things- that they may not be able to otherwise. So we tried to come up with something that isn’t necessarily off-putting to someone that doesn’t want to be ‘preached’ to, but that could also possibly open up their mind.

TLS- Your current production- JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet– is an adaptation of the William Shakespeare classic, but with a focus on queer youth. What is it that brought you to pursue that connection and see that through to the production that it is today?

romeoZA– Well I first had the concept in college- Romeo and Juliet is one of my favorite plays of all time, Shakespeare or not. I love the relationships. Once I studied it more, that just how I saw it- two women. At first it was this grandiose, crazy idea-with crazy costumes and wigs and the ideal an all-female cast, but without the means to do that in college it never really came to anything. I never let the idea go and over time I was able to hone it down, editing the script and the story in a relevant manner…. The goal was to edit the story in a way that was applicable and reflective of society and the way I have seen it in my own personal life experience. When we started the theatre group, it was the perfect venue for me to see the project all of the way through. It was really just a result of growing older, having more specific ideas, having a space and having a cast.

TLS- How do you think the events in the last couple of years- bullying, teen suicide, etc. have shaped the outcome and timing of the production?

ZA-When we set up the season there was not that huge buzz that there is now around marriage equality in Illinois. The It Gets Better campaign was going on, and that was something that was definitely on my brain. My first thought was, ‘OK, I am creating a season… I have this specific concept that has a lot of attention right now- queer teen suicide, the relationships that lead to it- and maybe we can keep the ball rolling and keep people discussing it. It just so happens that once we started pre-production same sex marriage in Illinois became a hot topic. The show doesn’t just deal with a specific part of queer teens, but marriage, religion and other obstacles that are faced.

TLS- Does the Realize Theatre group focus specifically on Queer themes or social justice in general?

ZA– The idea of RTC is to inspire compassion among people, and connect the community no matter what the issue may be. It is from an activism standpoint; however queer rights and livelihood are a focus for us. Next season one of the shows we are planning on putting up has to do with trans identity and love and relationships. We really try and hit whatever relevant themes we can. This season we ran Scheherazade, which addresses violence- specifically sexual violence against women.

TLS- What do you want people to take out of your adaptation of Romeo and Juliet?

ZA-We try to facilitate dialogue. After each performance we have a 20 minute post show discussion with the audience. This isn’t the kind of talk that is based around the actors and their experience, but for the audience to discuss with one another and the cast the themes that they experienced that night and the feelings that may have come up from that. I would love for people to be in discourse with one another, to be motivated to become active. For some people, becoming active might mean just having the conversation- so many times these conversations are had they are only around people in agreement. By having this discussion, we are putting people into a room that don’t necessarily agree with one another in a mediated setting, and allowing them to hash it out as a community. This is what I see as a true community conversation which will hopefully lead to some true inspiration for some.

TLS- I would love to ask you a little bit about the soundtrack composed and produced by Joy Huntress, and performed by herself and KrisDeLaRash. How did that all come together?

ZA– Kris and I have been good friends for awhile now. I actually went to hang out with the two of them one day and was telling them about the concept of the show and how I wanted to make it into a multimedia production… So whether it was a photography book that went along with it or a costume collection created from it, I really wanted it to be more than just a play. They had let me listen to a song they had made together and it was something about their two voices and their words that really hit me in the place that this play was residing… Once I told them about the concept we kind of agreed right then and there that we wanted to compose some original music for the script. Their soundtrack will also be available for sale after the show.

TLS-What kind of reception have you gotten, both in the theatre community and the LGBT community?

ZA– The play that we began our season with, Scheherazade, is kind of brutal to watch. So a lot of people in the theatre community thought we were ballsy to start off with a show like that. The reactions were really varied and some were frankly just sexist. But for the most part, people have been very supportive which is something I love about the Chicago theatre community. I have done a lot of travelling around in the city talking about the play to anyone who will listen- LGBTQ, Ally; even some of the most homophobic people I have met have given me great feedback for this show. The fact that people from all walks of lives and different situations find this topic intriguing really excites me so I am hoping for a good turnout!

JUST ANOTHER LOVE STORY: The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
Opens April 19 and runs through May 25, 2013
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Prop Thtr
3502 N. Elston Ave. Chicago, IL 60618.
For tickets click here.
To donate to the Indiegogo campaign click here.

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About Lauren

Lauren was born and raised in South Minneapolis and like many other innocent midwesterners got sucked into the black hole of Chicago politics 4 years ago. As the LGBT Coordinator for the Gery Chico for Mayor Campaign she attempted to take on the entire city and hasn’t looked back since. Now working for a communications firm, she spends her extra time running around with cases of PBR playing in different sports leagues, hosting couchsurfers from all over the place, and deciding how she is going to change the world. A simple lady at her core, she has decided that the first person to send her an edible arrangement must be the one.

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