The conflict between the Moors and Christians in the Spanish city of Granada in the 15th century provides the context for the upcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet" by the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.
In the production directed by Brett Elliott, Romeo and his family, the Montagues, are Muslim, while Juliet and the Capulets are Christian. The character of Friar Laurence, Romeo's spiritual mentor, is an imam.
"It's set just after the Treaty of Granada, after the Christians took over from the Muslims, so it was the end of centuries of Muslim rule in Granada," Elliott said.
Elliott said the historical backdrop provides an added dimension to the story of the star-crossed lovers and why their families were so opposed to their relationship.
"I was looking for a time period where two groups were living in an uneasy tension, as they are in the play, and I really liked the idea of Christians and Muslims because of its relevance in our current political situation," he said. "I think it's a tension that the audience can relate to and I am hoping it will both ramp up the drama of the play and be food for thought."
In anticipation of the production, Elliott has been working with the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group of Southern California, facilitating a series of interfaith workshops between the First Christian Church of North Hollywood and the Islamic Center of Southern California. The performances will feature pre-show discussions with workshop participants, actors, staff members and audience members.
At a recent rehearsal, some of the cast members met with three members of the Islamic Center of Southern California at California Lutheran University's theater arts building in an effort to ensure Muslims and their faith are portrayed accurately.
John Slade, an actor from Ojai, plays the imam and said he was glad for the help.
"I like the idea but once we get down to ritual, it's a little daunting," Slade said. "The call to prayer and so on, I don't want to do it wrong."
Yousaf Alasnar, Novera King and Hanady Sharabash helped with the pronunciation of Arabic words Elliott has incorporated into Shakespeare's text and showed the actors how to perform Islamic prayers.
Alasnar recited the call to prayer, singing in Arabic, and then explained to the cast what the words mean.
"We do prayers five times a day and each time before the prayer, we do this call to prayer," said Alasnar, a computer engineer from Los Angeles.
Alasnar, King and Sharabash explained how worshippers line up shoulder to shoulder in straight lines to pray, with men at the front and the women behind them.
During the prayer, they said, the actors should be looking down. They took the actors through the movements that included bending over with hands on their knees and then kneeling and bowing to place their forehead on the ground.
"Muslims are sensitive about these issues but just the fact that Brett has invited us here, he wants things to be as accurate as possible," Alasnar said. "It's great. It's a good idea to help people see differences between the two religions and the fact that there is more commonality than differences."
King, a writer from Sherman Oaks, said, "I love Shakespeare, so I am very excited by this portrayal of the play.
"I think it gets everybody to understand each other, and I think it's really great that they've asked us to come here. All of the cast is really interested in finding out the right way to say things and the right way to make prayer. That's really very rewarding."
"Romeo and Juliet" opens July 20 as part of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival at CLU in Thousand Oaks. The production has nine performances, ending Aug. 5.
Go online to http://www.kingsmenshakespeare.org for more information and to purchase tickets.
--- Published in the Ventura County Star on July 12, 2012