As a theater artist myself, getting the opportunity to speak with director Sharifa Yasmin about her craft is a blessing each and every time. Toward the end of our discussion today, I asked to speak with her about her work is to become a better theater maker. I have learned so much from this incredible artist and human being, and I am honored to share Sharifa Yasmin’s perspective with the HypeFresh community.
Sharifa Yasmin, Extraordinaire
Sharifa Yasmin is an accomplished director and a published playwright. If you ask me or anyone who has seen her perform, they’d tell you she is an extraordinary actress as well. We first met in 2019 at the Hangar Theatre, where she directed Naomi Wallace’s challenging play The War Boys during her prestigious directing fellowship with the Drama League. That summer, I had the privilege of serving as her Associate Director (our artistic love affair is ongoing). Her play, The Devils Between Us, is included in “The Metheun Drama Book of Trans Plays.” In 2021, she was the recipient of the inaugural SCDF Barbara Whitman Award which, “recognizes a female, trans, or non-binary early-career director who has demonstrated a unique vision in their work” according to Playbill.com.
Amidst several other fellowships and much deserved recognition, Yasmin is an MFA Directing Candidate at Brown/Trinity Rep. She will continue to live and work in Providence, RI on the land of the Narragansett people, from where she called into our Zoom meeting today.
Community and Collaboration Come First
She grew up in South Carolina in a religious Islamic household. Her father is Egyptian, which she says has played a huge role in her culture and upbringing. She identified herself as “culturally” Muslim.
She candidly shared of her childhood: “My body wasn’t supported in a lot of places and I never was really able to find community. I was too Arab for the kids at school, I was too queer for the kids at the mosque… I never really had a home or a family that accepted me.”
In her work, Yasmin creates her own communities that are loving, caring, and empathetic by design.
When describing herself as an artist, Sharifa Yasmin explained that she believes that “theater is the most collaborative art form and it should be created from community.” My personal experience as a director has taught me that people unfamiliar with the craft have a preconceived notion that directors are bossy, temperamental control freaks; director’s way or the highway.” However, Sharifa Yasmin, cannot even describe her artistry without establishing an understanding that her work functions as a collaboration first.
Directing As a Practice
“I think something I’m really focused on in my practice is: how do we level every artist in the room so that we can truly be a team? And I’m really passionate about that connection in the room because I think that breathes immediately into the work… you’re able to access the truth and the validity of the story. Especially when you’re being supported by an environment that is jovial, and kind, and loving, because I tend to tackle very intense pieces, very dark pieces.”
She describes her work as a director not as a job, or even as a labor of love, but as a practice. This statement moved me. Having worked with Sharifa in a rehearsal room, I can truly attest to the fact that she approaches her work from two angles. At once, she is trying to improve the work of the play itself while at the same time she is trying to curate a safe environment to work within. Using the tools from her foundation in Intimacy Direction, she wants her actors to be able to “embark on the work always knowing that consent is ongoing and that you always need to prioritize your humanity over your art.” She continues, “Art should never be prioritized over humanity. And I feel like so often in the theater industry that’s been the case… I’m really passionate about changing that.”
In 3 Words Or Less…
Sharifa describes the theater she makes as both “heartbreaking” and “beautifully devastating.” When I asked her to pick a favorite of all the plays she has directed, she gasped and then grinned. “Oh my god, it’s a tie! I can’t choose between my babies!” If her cast and creative team are her family, then the plays she works on are her children.
“I would say the two most special plays I’ve directed, for me, were The War Boys by Naomi Wallace at Hangar Theatre and the show I just closed three days ago, Beirut, at Brown/Trinity Rep by Alan Bowne.” She elaborates: “I think both of those plays are some of the most difficult work I’ve ever embarked on…They both center very dark aspects of humanity and what people are willing to do to one another… masculinity, and toxic masculinity, and how that breaks men just as much as it breaks anyone else…As a trans woman who grew up with toxic masculinity very much crippling me and my identity and my ability to express my identity, that’s something that I find that I gravitate [toward] in my work.”
Her passion for her work emanates from every cell in her body. “I have a brand, apparently! And I’m okay—let me have that brand!” she cheered, toasting her iced coffee to me across the Zoom screen.
Getting Her Work Out There
Having your consistent brand be theater that holds a mirror up to some of the ugly sides of the world we live in does not always yield a large audience. “The kind of shows I do, I get like 10 people showing up in the audience. And you know, you work really, really hard to birth that baby and then no one… it’s hard working on the stories that I do… we do them because they deserve to be seen and then they’re not. And so it’s hard as an artist… to work so hard and feel like your work is not getting out there.”
But Sharifa believes so deeply in the stories she chooses to tell onstage. The honesty of her work; therefore, shines through. On her Barbara Whitman Award, Yasmin said “It told me I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing and that the stories I was working on were important. And that I needed to keep pushing forward…I’m really grateful to [SCDF] and to Barbara Whitman because it truly changed my life. It really did.”
A Director’s Passion Project
The level of care and maturity she brings to all of her work is a prerequisite for her dream project. For years when asked if she could direct any play, she consistently replies with Naomi Wallace’s In The Heart of America. She and I have talked about this play a thousand times, but even on the thousand and first time, her passion for this piece was palpable.
“It’s about politics. And religion, and identity and gender. And war, sexuality… something that I’m really passionate about are stories about how America has devastated the Middle East… And it’s something we so rarely talk about… As an Arab woman, it’s something that is really important to me. I think the play…” she paused as she began to tear up. She continued, “[the play] articulates it in such a stunning way that’s unapologetic, punches you in the face, and says you’re gonna sit and you’re gonna watch the rest of this.”
Femininity As Power
Naomi Wallace’s words tell the truth, but they might hurt a little. Sharifa Yasmin, however, will always fiercely protect her actors and the environment she builds with them. Of her directing style, she says: “I used to try to hold that ideal of what I thought a good director was, which was white masculine… As a trans woman, and transitioning, I think one of the greatest things I learned about my directing…is that all these things I thought were my weaknesses were actually—my emotionality, my care, my empathy, how messy I am, erratic—all these things I thought were working against me, that very much centered femininity, were actually my greatest strengths. And allowed me to truly access the work. And get these stories from these actors that I don’t think they’d have been able to access without that.”
For her parting words, I asked Sharifa to share what advice she would give to her younger self. As a self-described President of the unofficial Sharifa Yasmin Fan Club, I was maybe hoping for a couple of pearls. She did not disappoint and (she never does).
“Don’t hold yourself to what you think you’re supposed to be. In terms of the white men that you saw as leaders, the straight[,] masculine people who you saw as leaders. What makes you special is everything you have that they don’t.”