Opinion: Leave my Muslim identity out of acting classes

What I learned about tokenism and agency from Shia LaBeouf's class

I’m standing by myself, eyes closed, hands crossed over my chest, going through the motions of salat, a ritual Islamic prayer. While reciting verses from the Qur’an in Arabic, I feel myself become more and more calm, centered. It’s one of the rare moments of the day when I truly feel at peace. But my focus is suddenly interrupted by the sound of clapping nearby. The cacophony, which seems to be coming from multiple directions, grows more intense as I proceed with my prayers. Feeling the proximity of the hands to my face, I open my eyes to a group of five or so people scattered around me. Registering my surroundings, I begin to see the 50 people seated in a larger circle around me. The room is a sizable, linoleum-floored space with high ceilings and dim fluorescent lights. The setting seems like a scene from some lucid nightmare or blockbuster horror flick, but it’s actually far less terrifying: an acting class. And it’s being taught by none other than Shia LaBeouf.

I was more than skeptical when my friend told me that LaBeouf, the veteran Hollywood star known for his role in the “Transformers” franchise and creator of art projects such as HeWillNotDivideUs and Erin Dorney’s “I Am Not Famous Anymore” collection of poems after him, was starting his own acting school that didn’t cost a penny. But after conducting a swift Google search, I found numerous articles discussing LaBeouf’s latest creative endeavor that ultimately dismantled my skepticism. My research led me to the official website for LaBeouf’s theater school, Slauson Recreation Center Theater School, which gave me a more comprehensive understanding of the school’s purpose that wasn’t tinted with tabloid sensationalism.

The website described the school as an “unconventional, experimental, devised theater” that aims to “garner the faith of the neighborhood as an active nucleus where the needs of some of the city’s more distressed can confront the ideas of the innovators in art and politics from the community.” While it took me a few classes to observe how the community outreach aspect of the class would come into play, it was not difficult to catch on to the “experimental” nature of the class.

The class structure was centered around the idea of making moments, an idea developed by the Tectonic Theater Project in New York that entails depicting a scene within

an established time frame. In the process of moment making, a performer will walk on stage, establish the start of their scene by stating “I begin,” articulate the story behind the moment through movement or other non-verbal expressions and conclude by stating “I end.”

A moment could be as simple as someone spinning in a circle or as complex as someone reenacting childbirth. There were moments that deeply moved me, like when a group of women stood leaning on each other in a line with strands of their hair tied together, and moments that deeply disturbed me, like when a participant eating a granola bar circled around a man feigning hunger before spitting her snack onto him. Whatever the motif of the moment, the ultimate goal of moment making, according to LaBeouf, is to “build something,” to “share secrets with each other” through connection and collaboration.

Although traditional theater elements revolving around blocking, staging and movement were utilized throughout the class, the absence of scripts, props and dialogue in the first few classes prioritized moments over narratives. Having been used to the rigidity and limitations of standard theater, the prospect of having free reign over my own self-expression seemed to fulfill a longtime desire of mine as a performer.

“The ultimate goal of what we do here is to have secrets with each other.”

Toward the end of my first class, after spending hours working up the courage to perform in front of the 80 or so individuals in attendance, I manage to make my way to the center of the space, which is then temporarily located in an almost desolate, industrial shooting location called Electric Pony Studios. Driven to assert my Muslim identity in my scene, I decide to center my moment around the act of fixing my hijab in a mirror, a mundane action that is nevertheless a sacred ritual for me. 

After the initial rush of nerves passes through me, I feel a sense of pride in what I accomplish because I feel like I can accurately represent an identity that is rarely depicted in performance. Believing that the class will be able to provide me a platform on which I can not only express my experiences as a Muslim in America but depict the plethora of commonalities Muslims share with non-Muslims, I decide to continue taking the class. I am hoping that the freedom of expression it grants will make me feel more comfortable in my own skin.

Unfortunately, the perceived connection and freedom of expression I believe I will gain proves to be a product of my own naive thinking. I begin to realize that my existence as the sole hijab-wearing member of the class grants me less of an opportunity to share the nuances of my Muslim identity with those outside of my faith and more of a chance for others to exploit the rarity of my identity in the classroom.

As I continued taking LaBeouf’s acting class at Slauson, I quickly became the “token” Muslim of the group, repeatedly being brought into moments solely for the purpose of having my Muslim identity be the focal point of the scene.

The first instance of this tokenization occurred during my third class, when, after performing a scene suggested by an African American woman in which we acted out our respective religious prayers, multiple white, non-Muslim individuals attempted to build off of our scene by projecting their perceptions of Islamophobia onto me. While collaborating with other performers on how to add to my scene, one girl suggested that someone should pretend to hold a gun to my head while I was kneeling down to pray, a proposition I calmly rejected.

This led the five or so individuals to clap intensely around me, as I went through the motions of salat. This became the pinnacle of my discomfort, as it is considerably disrespectful for a person to deliberately interrupt a person during prayer, a sacred conversation between a worshipper and God. Even after explaining this to not only the performers involved but the class as a whole, the insensitivity continued.

At the next class, LaBeouf picks me to add to a scene where a woman pretending to be blind is reacting to stimuli around her. Having an inkling that my hijab will once again be at the forefront of this moment, I reluctantly make my way to the center of the room to reenact the scene. After two separate individuals make slight, unproblematic adjustments to the scene, a woman gets up to join us. Once the scene begins and I close my eyes, she begins aggressively pushing me, which I again interpret as a vague and symbolic way of depicting Islamophobia. When the moment is over, no discussion is brought up about her intentions or the meaning behind the scene, and no one verbally questions it.

These incidents, however trivial they may seem to some, proved to be incredibly problematic to me. The manipulation of my desire to convey my experiences as a Muslim removed any agency I had over my narrative and often resulted in my intent being misconstrued. I walked away from these moments feeling as if my hijab had been reduced to the only prop used in the class, and that I was unable to convey my story without non-Muslims inserting themselves into it and projecting their opinions onto me.

What I feared from these incidents was not necessarily direct Islamophobia but the normalization of ignorance. By playing with someone’s religious identity in an artistic setting, acting classes run the severe risk of making performers subconsciously believe that offensive or discriminatory acts are permissible, and accountability is seldom dealt. Through this normalization, prejudiced individuals are easily given a platform to project their discriminatory tendencies under the guise of creating art. These troublesome scenes begged the question, how much freedom is too much freedom when it comes to artistic expression? Should boundaries be established in these settings to avoid disrespecting others identities, or is this an infringement of creativity? While I did find value in the lessons and advice given in the class, the “anything goes” atmosphere did not sit right with me in regards to the treatment of other’s identities.

Mine was not an isolated incident: During one moment, when a black woman wearing a jacket with the phrase “equal pay” on the back was waving it in a white woman’s face, LaBeouf reversed the roles so the white woman was waving the jacket in front of the black woman, entirely removing the intent of the original action. On another occasion, after a group of black men performed a moment when they linked arms in a circle to depict black male solidarity, a white man inserted himself into the scene by trying to break into this circle, again trying to enter a space made sacred by its inclusion of solely marginalized individuals.

As time went on, I began to question the intent of the class as a community outreach effort, seeing that the voices of the privileged were overpowering those of the marginalized that the class was meant to represent. Feeling the need to air my grievances, I approached LaBeouf to directly address my discomfort with the ignorant atmosphere surrounding the class. Luckily, he was understanding of the situation and acknowledged that my frustrations were valid. After expressing to him my desire to narrate my experiences in the form of an op-ed for Neon, he agreed to an interview. Here is an excerpt of our conversation regarding the creation of the Slauson Recreational Center Theater School:

Awo: How did the idea for Slauson come about?

Shia: Me and Bobby (Bobby Soto, co-founder of the school) were making a movie called “Tax Collector,” [and] on that film was a guy named Bojangles who is a keyholder for this area. He and I were talking about what’s available down here for young actors, that’s how it initially started. Me and Bobby were talking about his brother, and Bo’ was part of the conversation, and we were talking about what’s available down here and how athletes and people who have been through struggles have been the best actors, and there’s a wealth down here of struggle and athletics. And so Bobby proposed that we ask Bo’ for some space down here. Bojangles… set us up with the space, we went and got the city to sign off on it, we gotta go back every 6 months, and now we’re here. We get a free space as long as 50 percent of our room is from the community.

Awo: What was your intent behind the Slauson Rec. Theater School? What did you want to achieve by establishing this school?

Shia: My intention was to create some kind of hub down here, where people from the neighborhood could interact with ideas and art that aren’t available to them. Also people who are involved in other creative disciplines and platforms can come here and be a part of this as well. I feel like it’s rare [that] people get this neighborhood right, so I want to give this neighborhood its own agency so that it can speak for itself. I think white guy writing gangster movie is over. Also, white guy writing plays by himself is over. So, like, the whole dynamic of the way plays are written and created is quite archaic, dictatorial, classically white and rich. If you look at literature and plays specifically, there’s not a whole lot of wealth of other, it’s always just white men writing plays and we just regurgitate them for 60, 70, 80, 100 years. I think the story isn’t there anymore. We are in the middle of that story getting a platform in a way that it never has before, like mainstage, and that wasn’t needed. Other people need the platform, and I don’t know how we came to this point in cultural history, but it’s really scary and sad and disenchanting. I can sit at home and boo-hoo about it or take steps towards being a useful citizen.

Awo: Could you give a rundown of how the exercises work in the class, like the basic structure?

Shia: Moment work is something that’s been going on out of a place called the Tectonic Theater in New York, they made “The Laramie Project.” They wrote this book, and the last page of the book basically says go forth, build your own. So I’m not doing anything extremely unique, I’m following a formula and I have a solid group of people with me, so there’s no master, genius, leader, none of that. I’m literally reading someone else’s book, and the class is teaching itself. It’s quite egalitarian. I have friends who says, “No, there’s got to be a leader or it turns into mud,” but I have a very grounded relationship with the limitations of reality, and this is a really nice balance for me. It feels like church, but it feels like an acting class. My Saturdays have become sacred.

“I want to give this neighborhood its own agency so that it can speak for itself.”

Awo: How exactly do you think this community could benefit directly from having Slauson?

Shia: Art is a necessity, like air is a necessity. They have a whole lot of soccer programs, a whole lot of basketball programs, they have zero arts programs. Arts funding has dried up in Los Angeles: There is no grant being put forward towards these kids being able to interact with artwork, and so far the community that’s taken part is down. We’re slowly taking steps towards ingratiating ourselves, and that takes time. If I just go up and down the street with some flyers and some white man, affirmative action shit, they’re not going to have it. If I go walking up and down the street with theater kids from the O.C., handing out flyers, I’m totally insensitive. So it’s a process. It’s going to take me six or seven months to earn the trust of this community, before they start trickling in. In order to get to their good bits, you gotta earn their trust. The only way you earn their trust is with consistency and empathy.

Awo: Is the crowd that’s been showing up for the past few lessons the one that you expected or wanted necessarily?

Shia: I left it quite open ended. I know who my demographic is, not even just mine but people who have computers. Some of the people in my class don’t have cell phones, so they couldn’t see it on Twitter. They had to hear about it word of mouth. This is the demographic that I expected, yes, and it’s going to change. Are these our players? No. This is our company. We don’t know who in our company is who yet, but the company will naturally find itself. Everybody is just sort of naturally finding their fit. I’m trying to level it all out. But no, I didn’t expect any kind of demographic, and I’m not shooting for a demographic. I ask at the end of every class, “Who is from the community?” And I have people raise their hands. My goal is to get that number up. I want to get as many people from this community in as possible. Otherwise, what am I doing over here? My goal was not to just make some generic acting class, I have no interest in that. I’m not Michael Kane, I’m not writing a book on how to be a great actor. I’m really trying to be a part of a laboratory that builds cool shit. And I feel like in order to build cool shit, I can’t just have a bunch of art students. I’m not going to get to the cool shit. That’s why people at like Cal Arts don’t make cool shit. They’re missing something. There’s a struggle that you’re lacking when you pay $70,000 a year. It’s hard to be rich and be an artist. The struggle is gone. Sometimes you manufacture your own struggle, sometimes you don’t accept where you are. This is sacred to me for a lot of reasons. I get to explore myself in here, I get to explore other people in here, I get to forget myself in here.

Awo: How do you think not only you, but the industry of Hollywood, can make theater and performance more accessible to people who aren’t depicted in it?

Shia: You have to give them the controls, that’s what you have to do. Hand over the controls, that’s really it.

“Art is a necessity, like air is a necessity.”

Once our conversation wrapped up and class began, I expected the usual dynamic to continue. But to my surprise, before class started that day, LaBeouf addressed the class by advising us to not interfere with a moment that is personal to someone’s identity, whether that be their culture or skin color. He drew upon his own Jewish identity as an example, stating that he would feel extremely uncomfortable if a group of people performed a moment in which they formed a swastika with their bodies. After his brief announcement, I noticed a considerable shift in the class as people began to stray away from making identities the focal point of their moments.

Although the moments performed in the classes following LaBeouf’s announcement maintained their rawness and intensity, they became considerably more abstract, and more rooted in the manipulation of physical space rather than exploration of self. The members of the class seemed to better understand where to draw the line between being inventive and outright offensive when treading personal subjects. But this change in direction didn’t remove authenticity from the moments. Some members of the class still chose to tie in their racial and cultural backgrounds into their scenes, but those who did not share their identity were less likely to interfere with those scenes.  

While this shift may have been unnoticeable to some, it was beyond significant to me. It demonstrated that simply by starting conversations about identity and its objectification, real changes in others’ mindsets can occur. In a society where racial, ethnic and religious identities continue to be misconstrued to the public, and tokenization runs rampant in the theater world and the entertainment industry as a whole, accurate representation is beyond vital. Actors from marginalized communities should be afforded the right to perform as their authentic selves without having their differences exploited. No performer should ever feel boxed in by their identity because of the ignorance of others.

During the next few classes, I began to focus less on the performances that were taking place in class and more on the community members who started to trickle in. Some, who were no doubt curious as to the source of the commotion in the building, would peep in from the adjacent basketball court, only to swiftly return to their game. Others would sit in and patiently observe how the class functioned. Only a few of these passersby got up to perform moments of their own at first, but when they did, they were powerful, honest and representative of the purpose of the Slauson Recreation Center Theater School in that they allowed the audience to step into their shoes and understand how vastly similar our stories are, despite our differing backgrounds.



Awo Jama is a freshman journalism major at USC. Through her work, she hopes to provide more multi-dimensional coverage of the intersections of fashion, culture, and social justice.