Actor and writer Aizzah Fatima says that she can immediately get a sense of a town's political climate after performing her show "Dirty Paki Lingerie" there.
"I just came back from touring England, and it was a really weird experience because I performed in really small towns, places I'd never heard of, and I performed in village halls and then in really fancy places and I just had such mixed reactions," Fatima told NBC News.
Fatima has gotten used to having often-intense conversations with audiences after performing her one-woman show, which weaves together the stories of six Pakistani-American women and girls who range in age from six to 65. "Each character tackles a different theme like sexuality, the isolated identity of being American slash something else and racial profiling," Fatima said.
Several audience members on her last tour challenged her about her character's decision to wear the hijab or to cover their faces, she said. "This one guy, his first comment was, 'If I see a woman with her face covered, I would rip it off. It's my right to see her face,'" she recalled. "It was so angry. And we had women making comments like that too. It was very strange."
Fatima was still thinking about these themes after she returned home to New York when fellow playwright Monica Bauer reached out to her. "She contacted me out of the blue and said, 'Aizzah, I want to help fight Islamophobia and I want to do it through the arts and I want to present your play in New York City," she said. "I was just very touched. Here's this woman who is Christian, who is an ordained minister, who went back to school for playwriting, and it's amazing."
The two began brainstorming and came up with what would be the Lady Liberty Theater Festival, scheduled for September 7-25 in New York City. "Monica had a bunch of plays that told the stories of Middle Eastern and Muslim characters and we came up with this idea of this little festival that tied into this concept of America being a nation of immigrants," Fatima said. "So the idea was to bring together all of these different voices of people who are Jewish, Muslim, Christian and other religions, and just coming together to tell these stories."
Each night, Fatima's "Dirty Paki Lingerie" will be paired with Bauer's "Lady Liberty's Worst Day Ever" and "No Irish Need Apply," which Fatima says "plays on the idea of how every group that comes to the US suffers, whether it is the Irish or the Catholics or the Jews or more recently the Muslims."
"It takes place in a little souvenir shop that is staffed by a Syrian refugee and the woman who owns it," she added.
"Lady Liberty's Worst Day Ever" approaches current events from a more comedic perspective and imagines a world where Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump becomes president and sets out to purchase the Statue of Liberty. "Lady Liberty is a character in the play and she's talking to her agent about this whole idea of Trump buying her and rebranding her," Fatima said.
Bauer and Fatima had already begun planning the festival when they realized it would run during the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. "We were like, 'We have to do something to bring people of different faiths together, as opposed to the hate speech out there,'" recalled Fatima. They decided to plan a full day of special programming designed to highlight immigrant stories that will open with an interfaith prayer and include a reading of the Washington Post op-ed by Ghazala Khan, the mother of the late soldier Humayun Khan.
As she experienced while touring with her show, Fatima says that she has been surprised by some of the reactions to the festival on social media — particularly the reaction to the image of the Statue of Liberty wearing a headscarf used to promote the event. "The reaction has been mixed on Facebook," Fatima said. "People have posted things like, 'I'm really offended that you'd use a symbol of oppression on the Statue of Liberty.'"
But Fatima remains confident about the conversation they hope the festival will start. "I admit my first reaction was, 'Wow, that is very bold,'" said Fatima of the image. "Honestly, I don't know if I would have picked it. But in a lot of ways I'm happy that they did and it really did spark a debate, and and I think that's what theater should do."