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Americana in hijab

October 09, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

Nearly everyone has seen, if not acted in, "You Can't Take It With You," the classic American comedy about two vastly different families that would never willingly interact if it weren't for marriage. A staple of commercial and amateur venues, the 1936 play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman is produced hundreds of times all over the world every year.

Even so, no one has seen the play in any version other than its original. Both the Hart and Kaufman estates have traditionally frowned upon even minor adjustments.

But beginning tonight, the Cornerstone Theater Company will kick off a 2 1/2-week run of "You Can't Take It With You: An American Muslim Remix," a radically contemporized version that is not only updated to the present and moved from New York to Los Angeles but also changed to feature two Muslim families: one Pakistani, one Saudi Arabian.

"When they proposed a Muslim American version, it was kind of a surprise, and it didn't particularly strike me as a fabulous idea, having all those wonderful characters running around in burkas," said Chris Hart, the 55-year-old son of playwright Moss Hart and controller of his father's estate. "It was an odd vision."

In both versions of the play, the basic characteristics of the two families are the same: One is wealthy, the other eccentric. The differences are in the details. In addition to being Arab American, the female romantic lead in the Abd-ul Rahman family is not a secretary in a tailored dress suit, as in the original, but an architect wearing hijab. Her sister is not an aspiring ballerina but a wannabe rapper. Her mother is a screenwriter, and her father is an inventor of beauty products. The male romantic lead is Pakistani, a member of the Khan family, which owns a construction company.

All the action takes place in contemporary L.A., with numerous cultural and geographical references: hip-hop star Mos Def, the House of Blues, Keanu Reeves, the intersection of Hollywood and Highland.

"Honoring both the community and the source text has been the really fun balancing act with this project," said Peter Howard. One of Cornerstone's founding members, Howard was also the writer of "An American Muslim Remix," which was approved by the Hart and Kaufman estates only after he wrote it on spec.

Founded in 1986, Cornerstone has a long history of successful adaptations and a good track record with notoriously difficult estates, e.g. those of Ibsen and Brecht.

Its adaptation of "You Can't Take It With You" is the sixth project in the group's 4 1/2-year cycle of faith-based plays, a series of community collaborations that began in 2001 and that has already produced works with Catholic immigrants, the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender community and African Americans dealing with the issue of HIV/AIDS.

Cornerstone had commissioned an original play by an Egyptian American playwright for its Muslim-based project. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and Cornerstone realized it needed to approach the topic differently. It dropped the commissioned play and decided to proceed with a comedy.

"There was so much being said and so much reflection and examination and attack and defensiveness. We were trying to avoid the pain," said director Mark Valdez, 32. "The times we're in are too serious. We didn't want to back away, but we wanted to get in to ask hard questions, to look closely, to go deeply in a way that people would go on that journey with us."

Cornerstone decided the best way to do that was with a comedy that could explore the way Muslim Americans practice their faith in daily life.

"I didn't want this to become Islam 101. Kaufman and Hart's original play is so brilliant in the subtlety of its social comment. That's the height I was aspiring to," said Howard, 41.

"An adaptation appealed to me because if I was writing an original script about the Muslim experience, I wouldn't be the man," added Howard, who was raised Catholic. "But finding common ground between the classic American family comedy of the '30s and this community was something I felt I could undertake because the original play gave me the questions to ask."

The first question was whether the basic premise of the play even rang true with L.A. Muslims. After doing a reading of large sections of the original play with a group of 30 or 40 community members, he found the answer to be a resounding yes. Howard then proceeded with one-on-one conversations in individual's homes to get a better understanding of "how daily prayer works when you've got five kids in the house and Joey's on the computer and Susie's doing homework. What happens when on a Saturday afternoon Dad does a call to prayer in the hallway?"

Howard's version of the play begins with that call to prayer, with Amir Hussain playing the dad. A professor of Islam in the religious studies department at Cal State Northridge, the 37-year-old Hussain, like two-thirds of the other cast members, is not a professional actor.

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