Constable: Frailty, thy name isn't these young Muslim women

In a theater packed with people of different races, religions, genders, ages and ethnic backgrounds, a team of young suburban Muslim women wearing pastel pink hijabs quoted a white playwright who died 400 years ago.

Performing their “mash-up” featuring William Shakespeare's depictions of women ranging from “angel” to “strumpet,” team members from the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park fired off ancient insults and praise before concluding, “I am a woman.”

“Four hundred years later, girls from a completely different world can say these words and it can give us goose bumps,” says Marilyn Halperin, director of education and communications at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. “That room was on fire.”

The theater, along with Chicago Youth Shakespeare, sponsored Monday night's Battle of the Bard competition in which teams performed a Shakespeare scene and their own slam-style “mash-up” of great lines from a variety of plays. The all-female, all-Muslim team was eliminated during earlier qualifying rounds involving 50 high schools but made such an impression that judges invited the squad to perform an “encore” to kick off Monday's finals at the theater on Chicago's Navy Pier.

Niles North High School won the competition with teams from Elk Grove High School and Prosser Career Academy in Chicago taking runner-up honors. Other competitors making it to the finals included suburban teams from Mundelein High School, Christian Liberty Academy of Arlington Heights and Oak Park & River Forest High School, as well as Kenwood Academy High School, Lindblom Math and Science Academy, and Senn Arts Magnet High School in Chicago.

“Across very, very different cultural and geographical boundaries, kids would come together and support each other taking risks,” Halperin says.

“It takes you out of your comfort zone,” says Raneem Damra, one of the nine senior girls who crafted the performance under the direction of teacher and coach Kate Balogh, the school's literacy center coordinator, whose love of Shakespeare inspired the team. The team wore shirts bearing Shakespeare's observation “Things won are done; joy's soul lies in the doing.”

“You see the passion,” says Noor Alyousef, the team's student peer coach.

“Everyone was relaxed and comfortable,” adds team member Selvi Shuaipaj.

“I especially like how it brought people together,” says fellow performer Hajar Mchabcheb.

In her classroom decorated with student-made handkerchiefs from “Othello” and battle banners from “Macbeth” and “Richard III,” Balogh worked with her student peer coach Alyousef and performers Shuaipaj, Mchabcheb, Damra, Yusur Alani, Amena Hashmi, Rana Salem, Emaan Arif and Rifah Chowdhury.

“We don't have any opportunity in the school for them to act or perform,” Balogh says, explaining how workshops co-sponsored by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Youth Shakespeare helped them hone those skills. “Once we started to dive into the text is where the real work started.”

The team members began by practicing a scene from “Macbeth” but eventually rejected it because they didn't like Shakespeare's depiction of Lady Macbeth, says Balogh, a non-Muslim who has been teaching at the school since 2004.

Balogh taught two sections on Shakespeare last year and has been organizing field trips to Chicago Shakespeare Theater for years. Talking about the depiction of women in Shakespeare's plays led to the same conversations we have today.

“Sometimes we're labeled as weak,“ says Arif, who notes that stereotypes of women sometimes are directed even more so at Muslim women. Ask the team members to use their own words to describe themselves and teammates, and they rattle off “caring, kind, confident, sweet, genuine, unique, outspoken, honest, giving and persistent.”

If Shakespeare were writing about these young women, his “Frailty, thy name is woman” line would need a rewrite.

Using Shakespeare's depictions of women ranging from an "angel" to a "strumpet," the all-female team from the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park perform an ensemble piece titled " She Is" at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as part of a high school Battle of the Bard competition and celebration. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
One of nine teams competing in the Battle of the Bard finals, these students from Mundelein High School reach for a higher plane. Created by Chicago Shakespeare Theater and Chicago Youth Shakespeare, the Shakespeare slam competition was won by a team from Niles North High School, with a team from Elk Grove High School as a runner-up. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Taking a curtain call after their performance of an original "mash-up" of Shakespearean quotes about women, students from the Islamic Foundation School of Villa Park say their piece, titled "She Is," helped them break stereotypes. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
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