HANDAN OZBILGIN Community Spotlight

Handan Ozbilgin is a theatre maker and the Assistant Director of LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Long Island City, Queens, New York. She’s been involved with Ping Chong + Company’s outreach efforts and LPAC workshops as the company has created our latest in the Undesirable Elements series, “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.” “Beyond Sacred” is running now until May 9th at LPAC. More info and tickets HERE.

handan photo 1
Handan Ozbilgin at work in her role as Assistant Director of LaGuardia Performing Arts Center.

How did you first come to engage with PC+C?

I engaged with the company when they were at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center for the development/workshop process of “Inside/Out… Voices from the Disability Community” in 2008. I was helping them with different aspects of the development workshop, from outreach to making sure that the theater space was accessible and secure for disabled community members.

What has been a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

With “Inside/Out,” [part of PC+C’s Undesirable Elements series], I remember thinking how simple the staging was and yet how powerful was the impact. I remember going through different emotions as the participants were telling their stories. Some lines have stayed with me after all these years. For instance, a participant in a wheelchair saying how she didn’t like the word “disabled.” The first part of the word “dis” has a negative equation and dismissed her from the rest of the society.

How does your experience with PC+C influence what you’re doing today?

It occurred to me then that when you work with real people and with their real life stories, you can create something so honest and powerful that it really makes an impact.

At this time the company is back at LPAC with “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.” PC+C has chosen again a very challenging subject to explore. Their risk-taking influences me in my artistic life.

AMIR KHAFAGY Community Spotlight

Amir Khafagy is a member of the ensemble of Ping Chong + Company’s “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” the company’s latest work in its Undesirable Elements series, opening tonight at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center in Queens. Amir describes himself as an Arab Rican, born and raised in Jackson Heights.

How did you come to engage with Ping Chong + Company?

I first learned about Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity when I was a student at LaGuardia Community College. At first I was hesitant to participate in the show because of my hectic school and work schedule.  A friend of mine who worked at school convinced me to sign up for the initial interview with Ping Chong + Company.  I soon realized that it was important for me to be part of this show, because I feel that as a Muslim, I am obligated to be a part of something that can help destroy the barriers that many Muslims face every day. Many of the barriers are not overt; they are barriers that many non-Muslims already have in their heads. The prejudice and misinformation that people harbor can really make it a challenge for Muslims trying to make this country a home.

Amir in rehearsal Adam Nadel
Amir in rehearsal for “Beyond Sacred,” with, from left, ensemble members Tiffany Yasmin Abdelghani and Maha Syed. (Photo by Adam C. Nadel)

What has been a meaningful moment or take-away from your experience with PC+C?

Working with such a talented and diverse cast in Beyond Sacred has helped me gain an even wider understanding of how rich and complex humanity as a whole is. In this country we try to fit everything into one category or another. We lump all Muslims into one group and call it “the Muslim community.” The reality is that there is no such thing as an all-encompassing  “Muslim community,” like there is not an all-encompassing Christian community. Muslims make up an incredibly abundant mix of people and cultures. I have learned so much about the world from my cast-mates that is so different from my experience.

How has your time with PC+C influenced how you feel about your path today, and/or your plans for your future?

Working with Ping Chong + Company has given me the theater bug. I have truly fallen in love with the whole process of creating something powerful from scratch. Ping Chong’s unique style of documentary theater has inspired me to incorporate theater into the organizing work I do in low-income communities. I would one day like to somehow incorporate theater in the fight for social justice. Theater can be a tool that can engage communities of color on all sorts of issues that affect their lives.

Amir headshot Adam Nadel
Amir Khafagy. (Photo by Adam C. Nadel)

VAIMOANA NIUMEITOLU: Connecting & empowering diverse communities

I have been a part of the Ping Chong + Company community for 15 years. I am a Senior Teaching Artist and I am also a performer in “Secret Histories/Undesirable Elements” with Ping Chong + Company. Currently I am teaching PC+C’s “Secret Histories” curriculum at the Museum Magnet School in collaboration with Lincoln Center Education. I am working with 8th graders from diverse backgrounds and communities. Together, we’re creating a performance in which the students will share their stories of culture, immigration, family, and home, in an event June 10th at the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center.  For all of them, this will be their first time sharing stories in performance with each other and with their school, families and communities. I am moved by who these young people are—their trust in me, in each other, and in themselves, taking risks outside of their comfort zones to share their stories. I have been with them for over 4 weeks now and already I have seen them grow in their confidence and sharing their truths. I witness their vulnerability and power in sharing what they have already gone through at a young age. Their stories vary, and they are seeing the connections of resiliency between each other:  families being exiled from their homelands; being homeless; family members being incarcerated; drug abuse; domestic violence; and learning whole new languages and cultures. I am inspired by who they have become. I see their strengths and courage every week. Also, we get to have so much fun together because each of them has their own humor and style, hence their own dance moves and jokes. Being a teaching artist for PC+C is not a job for me. It is me, living my purpose—and my purpose is using arts education to connect and empower diverse communities.

Moana MMS LE Manhattan 2015
Moana’s students and their classroom teacher in the “Secret Histories” project at Museum Magnet School, 2015.

Teaching, performing and working with Ping Chong + Company has inspired and empowered me to live my life-long dream as an artist and educator. I get to be someone who is committed to community, social justice, and making a difference in the world. This is a life that I love. PC+C has inspired me to be the founder and creator of Mahina Movement, a performance group of women that have performed on over 500 stages across the US and Ireland in the past 15 years. In our music and poetry, we tell our own stories and histories, which is exactly what I teach my students to do. Also, in the past 3 years, I have created and directed public murals to show and share stories of the community. I have worked on murals in LA, Utah, Australia and New Zealand. Currently I am working on a mural that will be on a 3-story building in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. This community mural will feature stories of grandmothers, mothers and their granddaughters from Palestine, China, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. This mural will honor and celebrate their stories.  This mural is sponsored by Ping Chong + Company, through a grant from the Asian Women Giving Circle.

I am very grateful to my Ping Chong + Company family. I would not be the artist and educator I am today without all the experiences, learning, and love that is given to me by the company. Thank you, PC+C!

Moana2015 Headshot
Moana Niumeitolu