Meddling mums and rapping rabbis: Deborah Cicurel goes behind the scenes of a new Muslim-Jewish comedy
When it comes to the sometimes strained relationship between Muslims and Jews, who would have thought there is room for laughter? Well, according to two young theatre directors, add some un-PC humour and the two communities actually have more in common than first meets the eye.
Salman Siddiqui and Josh Azouz – a Muslim and a Jew – are the co-directors of Come In! Sit Down!, a new sketch comedy show from MUJU, the Muslim and Jewish theatre company, which both hope will act as a counterpoint to today’s rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
In this tongue-in-cheek world presented in the play, terrorists are deradicalised through yoga and Brent Cross adopts its own security checkpoint; rabbis rap with imams and all the while, there’s rock, pop and hip-hop songs specially composed for the show to get the audience laughing along.
The cast includes Ramzi DeHani, a recent graduate from the Oxford School of Drama, Stevie Basaula, Amina Zia, Daniella Isaacs, Dominic Garfield and Lauren Silver, who also works as a composer.
Azouz, 29, says he was inspired to direct the play after realising: “I’m in my 20s, I live in London, and I don’t have a Muslim friend. The problem is that if you don’t know people from other communities, you make assumptions.”
Siddiqui, 35, agrees, adding that if you believe the common portrayal of Muslims and Jews in perpetual conflict, you’ll also ignore the fact that our shared roots go back several centuries.
“There is a wealth of shared experience on many levels, religiously, culturally and artistically – matchmaking mums included,” he says. “Mainstream media narratives tend to be one dimensional and conflate the complexity, the nuance and the personal of Muslim and Jewish experience into polar opposites.”
Thus, MUJU set about to relieve these very tangible tensions through Come In! Sit Down! – after all, as Azouz says, “when the pressure’s high you’ve got to counter it. We literally want Jews and Muslims to come in, sit down and do just that – laugh together. We’re all humans with a back story. When you can laugh, you naturally drop your defences and this allows people to open up.”
Both directors believe that the humour evident in their show is far more effective at building relationships between communities than if they had tried to approach the subject too seriously.
“Comedy is about being brave and honest in coming together to laugh, create, celebrate and explore the elephants in the room,” Siddiqui says. “Sometimes it can be really uncomfortable because it confronts you and forces you to think, “Why am I laughing? This is so un-PC!’”
“Muslims and Jews both have to let their guards down for it to work and be truthful,” Azouz agrees. “Once you crack the sketch and the clever twist is found that conveys the message, it’s so fulfilling and liberating. It allows the situation to breathe and everyone to laugh together, recognise and subvert stereotypical truths taken for granted and expose fresh perspectives.”
This, after all, is the aim of MUJU – to subvert common stereotypes and bring people together in their shared laughter.
“Muslims and Jews are becoming increasingly aware that we cannot trust the mainstream media to define our understanding of each other’s communities,” Azouz says. “We must reach out and build relationships – and what better way than the arts?”
What audiences at Come In! Sit Down! will find as they go on the comic journey of the show – with its rapping Rabbis, casual polygamy and terrorist yogis – is that despite the hysterical news reports and tensions in the community, they are able to share common experiences, real fears and human dilemmas with a smile, no matter what religion they are.
•Come In! Sit Down! is at the Tricycle Theatre, London, from Monday, 27 July until Sunday, 2 August. Details: www.tricycle.co.uk