Laura Maria Censabella, the playwright of Paradise, spoke to Assistant Director, Aria Sergany, about her inspiration for the play, and the process of writing it. Excerpts from that interview are presented below, alongside quotations from two of the books used by Laura in her research – Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love by Helen Fisher, and All American Yemeni Girls; Being Muslim in a Public School by Loukia K. Sarroub.
There are so many puzzle pieces that have to fit together to make a story. You start by reflecting on what you don’t understand about life, what scares you and delights you. From the beginning I had the broad outlines of my play: I envisioned a renowned scientist who has fallen from grace & is forced to teach in the public schools, & as part of that vision I saw a teenage girl with a secret who needs to work with him. As for the rest of it, that took me four years to puzzle out.
Like anyone, I am haunted by love lost & have burning questions about love. Why does love die? Can we do anything to make love last? Does most romantic love (that doesn’t turn into indifference or hate) turn into companionship, and is that such a bad thing?
“[L]ike all the other drives, romantic love is a need, a craving. We need food. We need water. We need warmth. And the lover feels he/she needs the beloved. Plato had it right over two thousand years ago. The god of love ‘lives in a state of need.’” (WWL, p. 75)
I was arrested by the notion that you could study love. And as I continued my research, I passionately wanted to know, like Dr. Royston in my play, what science could tell me about love that might rival the insights of all the greatest love poets.
I spent two years researching the science of love by reading many books & scientific experiments. I also studied other areas such as brain science, behavioral economics, animal mating, etc. I always knew that I wanted the science of my play to serve as a metaphor for what was happening between the characters emotionally. But since I only had a vague idea of what my story was going to be when I began, I had to learn more science than I would need.
“Children fall in love. In one remarkable study of childhood romance, just as many youngsters aged five reported having been in love as did those aged eighteen. I noticed this myself. I recently listened to an eight-year-old boy perfectly describe the symptoms of romantic love as he told me about an eight-year-old girl that he adored. He could not stop thinking about her… age makes no difference in feelings of romance.” (WWL, p. 214)
It was also important to learn about the life of an academic scientist. I searched for scientists who understood the imperatives of storytelling, & found Stuart Firestein, chair of Biology (at Columbia University) who used to be a theatre director. Dr. Aliza Holtz at Truro connected me to my most extraordinary interview: the young woman, Rachel Gutnik, told me her remarkable life story & proved that the dilemma Yasmeen faces in this play is not unique to her culture or faith.
I feel privileged to have interviewed many contemporary American young women who try to balance the pull of their traditional cultures with their desire to separate & become individuals. The stakes are very high for them (no one wants to lose the love of their family) as they straddle the fault line of two often-competing cultures.
I also feel privileged to have had the time to immerse myself in such a rich faith (as Islam) during the writing of Paradise. And because I am coming at it from an outsider’s perspective, I know what non-Muslim Americans don’t know & what they are curious about & I felt I could represent that curiosity through Dr. Royston in this play.
And like Dr. Royston, when I was younger, I had imbibed many negative images of Arabs through the media. Then I fell in love with a Lebanese-American fellow student in college & his family became my second family. I saw the beauty in the culture through their eyes.
“[A]s relations between the United States and the Arab world continue to be highly politicized, and as ethnic and national identity becomes even more meaningful during moments of high tension in the world arena, the lives of these young women and their families at the end of the twentieth century and at the dawn of the twenty-first becomes all the more significant in our understanding of what it means to be a member of society, an American, an Arab, a Muslim, and a young woman.” (AAYG, p. 20)
I thought Americans would have a nuanced understanding of the Muslim faith by the time Paradise was produced because it is absolutely vital that we do. I underestimated the power of hate-mongers to scapegoat, & for people to choose to remain willfully ignorant. I underestimated the tendencies that can be fanned in all of us to demonize others.
My mother’s family fought fascism in Italy by working with the Resistance, & they learned those lessons the hard way. Politically, we often don’t recognize how we are repeating history & heading toward ruin because it comes in a slightly different guise each time.
“What happens when a child is socialized in multiple cultures? Does identity become fragmented according to context (home, school, and community)? And do conceptions of the self also reflect this fragmentation as students remain Yemeni while becoming American?” (AAYG, p. 5)
My family on my father’s side is from Sicily, which the Arabs ruled (rather benignly compared to the island’s other invaders) for about two hundred years. They left their mark in the food, music, architecture, dialect & beliefs. So there is much about Arab culture that is familiar to me.
My Northern Italian grandparents on my mother’s side both ran away from their arranged fiancés to be with each other. They eloped to the city—my 17-year-old grandmother on the very night the older man was to come to her mother to ask for her hand. She jumped out a bedroom window to avoid him & meet my grandfather – it was a scandal in their town. My grandmother loved to tell me the story when I was a little girl, & I loved to listen to it no matter how many times I heard it.
“[T]he Yemeni girls lived lives full of uncertainties, not knowing whether they would finish high school or get married, go to Yemen or perhaps attend college. In all likelihood, the girls would marry early.” (AAYG, p. 29)
I think many non-Muslim Americans are afraid of Islam and Arab-American culture, both of which are quite diverse and could never be fully represented by this one play. Nevertheless, I hope I’ve given them some entry into the religion and culture through Yasmeen and Dr. Royston’s story–some softness, some compassion.
And I hope Muslim Americans can see in Yasmeen a complex portrait of a devout young woman in crisis, but one who is vibrant, delightful, and strong. I hope through her they can see the best of themselves.
I wanted to tell a beautiful story that would move people and make them laugh, too. I wanted to change their perceptions about the world in some way, the way all good art does. And I hoped that through their changed perceptions, we could create more bridges to each other.