How Playing a Muslim Woman Opened This Jewish Actor’s Eyes

Special Features   How Playing a Muslim Woman Opened This Jewish Actor’s Eyes In Haram! Iran!, a rabbi’s daughter plays a Muslim woman and finds connection, empathy, and a path to understanding.
Roberto Tolentino and Naama Potok in <i>Haram! Iran! </i>at TADA!
Roberto Tolentino and Naama Potok in Haram! Iran! at TADA! Hershey Miller

Naama Potok, daughter of renowned Jewish author and ordained rabbi Chaim Potok, currently stars as Gila, mother of Ayaz Marhouni, in Red Spear’s production of Haram! Iran! The show tells the story of the real-life Ayaz Marhoni and Mahmoud Asgari, two teenage boys who were hanged in Iran in 2005 for committing homosexual acts. But how does a woman who grew up in a traditional Jewish household take on the role of a Muslim woman struggling with the consequences of Sharia Law?

“I fully honor and accept the profound differences that exist between and among people,” says Potok. “I equally, if not even more, acknowledge how similar and connected we are. Devotion is devotion, so it becomes, ‘How is this woman expressing her devotion and how does it manifest itself?’ I’ve tasted tradition in my own upbringing and, even though I’m not observant today, I can tap into that very easily and freely.

“I think that means that there’s more humanity in me as an actor and a human being,” she continues, “because I’ve now accessed something very common and shared and connected.”

Potok dedicated herself to connecting with Gila on personal and historical levels. She focused on studying the political climate of Iran at the time of the play, as well as perfecting pronunciations of each of the Farsi words she speaks onstage. The treatment of the hijab was also crucial in creating her character. “I asked [our dramaturg] if I would always wear my hijab at home in front of Mahmoud,” she explains. “He said it depended entirely on how religious a woman I am and so what I gathered was that I don’t think she’s so religious that she would wear her hijab all the time.” Potok also says her knowledge of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khomeini were instrumental in understanding Gila, and she has visceral memories of the Iranian Revolution from her own upbringing.

Beyond processing her own childhood experiences, performing in Haram! Iran! helps Potok channel her grief over the current climate into creativity. “To me, one of the most dangerous elements that we’re experiencing right now in our country is how much of a voice is given to intolerance and bigotry,” she says. “When that is given so much volume and space it can become infectious; and, as very disturbing as it is to hear all of this speech, it is equally necessary for those of us who are committed to living our lives differently to understand that there is no one way other than: Thou shalt not kill. It’s vital for us to tell this story because it has to do—among other things—with honoring another human being’s voice.

“We need a safe space in which we can debate and tolerate differences of opinion without silencing one another. The climate we’re living in now can make people feel very alone so to come to the theatre is healing,” says Potok. “[We’re saying] ‘Hey, we see this and we’re telling a story about it. Come and listen. Be part of this with us.’”

Haram! Iran! plays at TADA! Youth Theatre through March 19, 2017. For tickets and information, visit HaramIran.org.

Joe Gambino is a writer, designer, performer, and Broadway lottery loser who lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.