The body of a young woman is lying outside the high courthouse in Lahore, Pakistan. She has been stoned to death by her own family while the Punjab police stood by and watched. Nothing will stop New York Times reporter Allisyn Davis from reporting the devastating details to the people of America.
This season’s Winter Mainstage finale, Honor Killing by Sarah Bierstock, which anchors 2018 Sarasota Festival of New Plays, presents a chilling and suspenseful perspective on timely topics of women’s issues as well as cultural parallels and divides between the US and Pakistan. After making its debut at last year’s Burdick Reading Series as part of the Sarasota New Play Festival, Honor Killing spent a year in development, and is now making its world premiere on FST’s Gompertz Theatre stage.
We went behind the scenes with Sarah as well as FST’s Producing Artistic Director, Richard Hopkins, who is directing the show, to dive deeper into this timely and emotionally-charged new work, and why it’s an important story to tell today.
For better or for worse, the news cycle can be a rich source for artistic inspiration in addressing some of the most pressing issues of our time. “On the morning of May 26, 2014, I turned on the news in New York and learned of the murder of Farzana Parveen, a woman who I did not know who had been murdered by her own family in an honor killing in Lahore, Pakistan,” said Bierstock of the moment creative inspiration struck. “The circumstances of Farzana’s death horrified and shook me on such a profound level. I began writing Honor Killing a day or two later, and within 10 days I had written the play’s skeleton.”
After discovering the play’s concept, then comes the research. Bierstock chose to tackle this story through the lens of Allisyn Davis, a fictionalized reporter for The New York Times, and the main character in Honor Killing. “I modeled some of Allisyn’s experiences off of a few female reporters I particularly respect, such as Carlotta Gall (who writes for The New York Times and covered Pakistan for twelve years),” said Bierstock. But the playwright quickly realized this singular Western perspective could not support the work on its own. “I also reached out to several Pakistani female reporters, asking for help to authenticate the story I had created,” continued Bierstock. “To my delight, several responded positively, and I was able to ask them a myriad of questions that helped me re-write the journalistic elements of this story more realistically.”
This play revolves around a very important and real issue in the Middle East, and an issue many Americans understand very little about. But Bierstock maintains that this is an American story. “This protagonist, Allisyn, is an educated, affluent Caucasian-American reporter,” she told FST. “The journey Allisyn takes is true to her individual experience as an American female who has a vested interest in women’s rights in Pakistan. This interest is in direct response to trauma that occurred in her own past in the States.”
“The big theme of the play though, is women’s issues,” said Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins. “We start with the honor killing in the play, but then it backs up quickly to the issues that Allisyn has had in her own experience in America, giving the audience a connection between both cultures.”
For Hopkins, the connection to women’s issues doesn’t end there. “I think it is a fascinating time to be presenting this play because of the #MeToo movement that is occurring, which is changing everyone’s perception of the role of women in our society of the US,” he shared. “As the role of women is evolving and changing in Pakistan and Middle Eastern countries as well, we have that in common.”
Bierstock agrees, “This is a time of incredible time of empowerment for women globally. We are re-determining what acceptable behavior is toward women, and creating limits and boundaries.”
In addition to the concept, the technical components of this show are especially challenging and complex. “The actors themselves will be using Skype onstage as we, in real time, project their image for the audience to see,” explains Hopkins. “This challenge enhances one of the undercurrent themes of the play, which is that life is all about point of view.”
Whose culture is better? Whose ideas are better? Whose laws are better? Honor Killing will leave you asking questions. “It’s all about your point of view,” said Hopkins. “I’m pretty sure the Pakistanis would say their way of life is better. And we, as Americans, would say our way of life is better. And that’s what leads to wars. So, embracing the differences is what solves wars, problems, and conflicts.”
From timely issues to elaborate technical muscle, the World Premiere Honor Killing brings exciting new challenges to the FST stage. But for Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins, it’s about something more. “The play has an adventurous spirit,” concludes Hopkins. “That’s what drew me to the play.”
Honor Killing stars FST veteran Rachel Moulton who was most recently seen in Heisenberg earlier this season. This is Moulton’s 7th production with FST.