According to their website, Austin’s Generic Ensemble Company “makes the invisible visible through bold, socially relevant, body-centered theatre.” In the past, this has included works like “Robin Hood: An Elegy” and “The Mikado: Reclaimed” that have focused on loosely adapting classic texts into contemporary, collaboratively devised works that tell the infrequently heard stories of people of color in today’s America.
Now, the company has done it again with “Scheherazade,” playing through June 17 at the Vortex Theatre. The show, directed by kt shorb with a script devised by the entire ensemble (compiled and edited by Annie Kim Hedrick and Leena Warsi), updates the storytelling conceit of “The Arabian Nights” to explore one woman’s experience of being Muslim and queer in a world hostile to both of those identities.
The framing story of “Scheherazade” follows Leila Suleman (played by Laura J. Khalil) as she attempts to re-enter the United States after having spent time abroad in the Middle East searching for her best friend Yousef (Donnesh Amrollah), who has either been forced to go into hiding or been killed over his homosexuality. At the airport, she comes up against racist Department of Homeland Security agent Ginny Wight (Laura Baggs), who is obsessed with catching a terrorist.
The interactions between Leila and Wight are counterpoised against a variety of flashbacks, showing both a mythologized vision of Leila’s childhood with Yousef and Wight’s intense, pop culture-infused fantasy of becoming a hero through stopping a terrorist plot in the course of her job. These scenes intentionally play off one another, showcasing the role that our own fantasies and self-created narratives play in our lives and interactions, both for good and ill. The moments of memory and fantasy also allow for various explorations of theatrical possibility, from dance to symbolism to agitprop.
Austin theater, as a microcosm of American theater in general, can often rightly be accused of being overwhelmingly white, which is what makes GenEnCo’s work, both in “Scheherazade” and more generally, so important and so overwhelmingly vital to our community. The cast, the majority of whom are actors of color, are clearly speaking from their own experiences with pain and trauma, which creates a visceral connection that overcomes some of the actors’ less technically adapt performances. There is, ultimately, passionate, painful truth in this art that creates the beating heart of the production.
“Scheherazade” is political theater at its most raw and most direct, giving a voice to a marginalized group of creators who revel in the chance to tell their own story, a story that demands to be heard.
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through June 17
Where: 2307 Manor Road
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org