An Interview with Caitlin Cassidy, Yasmeen in Paradise

Caitlin Nasema Cassidy plays Yasmeen in the world premier of Paradise by Laura Maria Censabella. We sat down with her to discuss the play, the rehearsal process, and her love of Lebanese food.

You started studying Arabic & Political Studies before making the journey to Acting. How does one inform the other?
I believe in the capacity of art – of theater –to change the world. Because this piece is so much about teaching and mentorship, it only feels right to say that I owe this revelation to an undergraduate professor of mine, Derek Goldman, who altered the course of my life in teaching me not only how possible, but how vital the integration of arts and politics is. For me, the two inform and enrich one another. Theatre is most potent when it is interdisciplinary. And I believe great artists are students of everything.

You describe yourself as of Irish, Lebanese and Syrian descent. How does your wonderful family heritage influence and inform your work?
Growing up between here and abroad – having to adapt to and identify with so many communities – has instilled in me a deep desire to be a bridge builder. All of my work seeks to bridge – to build collective from among diverse sets of individuals through the sharing of personal narrative. I find myself, over and over again, telling stories about attempts at connection. My preoccupation with hospitality – particularly toward strangers runs deep.

Storytelling, for me, is ultimately about justice. And justice arrives out of truth. Whether through documentary work, or fiction, or the wordless performance I often find myself invested in, I strive to illuminate untruth and to imagine improved realities. To borrow from one of my favorite storytellers Federico García Lorca, “Wherever there is a dark corner, to direct towards it light.” I am committed to making art that reaches across borders and reminds us that we are more alike than we are different.

Yasmeen is an incredible character.  How have you found the experience of playing her?
It is a gift to walk in Yasmeen’s shoes. She is far braver and mightier than I, and while she’s a student, I find she’s often the one doing the teaching. She is certainly teaching me about grit and faith and hope. While Yasmeen has not had an easy time growing up (which she’s still in the middle of when the audience meets her), I have never thought of her as a victim – of circumstance or otherwise. She is, for me, profoundly heroic in her optimism, determination, resilience, and ultimately, her independence.

How you have prepared for this part?
Laura gifted us with a reading and resources list months before we were all in a room together, which allowed us to enter into working on the piece with a shared vocabulary and understanding of the worlds out of which the play was born. So, preparation has meant, in part, lots of super compelling reading! – on science, on love, on learning, on Islam, on Arab and Yemeni immigrant communities in the US, on our public education system. I have found myself reading the Quran for the first time. And it has meant lots of listening – to interviews with young Muslim women across the Arab/MENA region, to New York dialects, to Quranic recitation, to the music of a really extraordinary bunch of female muslim rap artists. I also spent a bit of time in the Bronx in New York – specifically, within and around Yemeni communities. I’ve written letters to teachers I loved; I’ve eaten my body weight in Arab food (my Lebanese mother who’s a genius cook makes it difficult not to); I’ve spent hours attempting to learn how to wear a hijab. And it’s funny how life works – in a way, my work with Arab students in Saudi, Tunisia, and elsewhere has prepared me to understand Yasmeen in a way I would not otherwise have been able to, I think.

Since you were cast in the play, lots has happened in the world at large that feels relevant to the issues in it. Has that effected your approach, or thoughts around the play?
Yes. At this moment in history when disinformation and fear of other seems to prevail, I believe I (we all) have an ever more urgent responsibility to humanize. I believe that theater, broadly defined, is among the most powerful tools (if not the most powerful tool) for bridge building through eye opening and empathy building. And I believe that the most radical transformation begins in safe spaces, where individuals are free to express themselves and to encounter one another as their boldest, most authentic selves.

For me, this is in theatre. Stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them not only speak volumes about our present reality, they also form our future. I am so grateful to find myself in this moment in service of the story of a brilliant and resilient young Muslim woman and to be a part of a team of women (and, of course, Barlow!) who advocate fiercely for truth.

And finally, why do you think people should come see Paradise?
The piece feels, to me, like falling in love. And it is my great hope that that reverberates into the audience. It wrestles so beautifully with the questions we all come up against as human beings. It will make you laugh. It will make you think. And Barlow‘s pretty stinkin’ awesome.

Paradise runs until May 7, 2017. Tickets are available here.