Accents have long been the bane of performers. They are easy to get wrong, can pigeon-hole actors, and sometimes don’t even properly reflect a character. Calls for better representation in recent years have made it even more important that when an accent is required, it’s done right both from a storytelling angle and a performance angle.
Take, for example, The Visitor. In the 2007 film, the character Tarek has an accent. In earlier iterations of the musical adaptation by Tom Kitt and Bryan Yorkey, and Kwame Kwei Armah, Tarek’s accent remained, but something about it felt off to Ari’el Stachel (The Band's Visit), who is playing the role on stage. So, when it runs at The Public Theater, Tarek will speak English without any hint that he was not raised in the United States.
Stachel presented the idea in early workshops, but it took the performer about four years to reach out more formally in an email detailing why the character needed to change. If Tarek had arrived in the U.S. in his formative years, wouldn’t he not have an accent?
“I got to the point where I couldn’t separate the experiences I was having in the world with what I was doing on stage. It is not enough to just play a role and have fun, it really needs to exist and align politically, spiritually, artistically, for me...I thought to myself, ‘my brown body needs to be not seen as an “other” anymore,’ so I’m actually trying to morph this opportunity.”
Stachel’s email sparked a deeper dialogue with director Dan Sullivan in the rehearsal room. “Tarek’s accent had to do with the timeline of his coming to the U.S. with his mother,” says Sullivan. “It was assumed he came in his teen years and that much of his education had happened in Syria. It took Ari’s request to abandon his character’s accent for us to examine this timeline and to realize that less perceived ‘otherness’ would add to the dramatic impact of the piece.”
That change and an overall expansion of representation is a “really, really important part” of how Stachel wants to use his artistry. His goal is to create a new understanding of the range of Brown identities that can exist on stage.
And while the artist isn’t purposefully politicizing his work, he knows that’s how it will be received. “In this environment, it is going to be a rather political statement to see my brown body on stage as a Syrian character who is undocumented but also American just like [everyone else].” Identity isn’t even something that the performer was looking specifically to explore on stage; it was an opportunity handed to him by the limited number of roles available to actors of Middle Eastern descent, as he's mentioned in previous interviews.
Auditioning for Haled in The Band’s Visit, Stachel said “it felt this was actually our only shot and, at the time, it was exhilarating to just have a job on Broadway. By the time I got around to The Visitor, actually, I started having an issue with the fact that all of the roles I was playing had accents.”
It’s a double-edged sword. Without characters like Haled or Tarek, there’d be even less visibility for Arab-Americans on the stage. When Stachel won the Tony Award in 2018 for his performance in The Band’s Visit, the star made sure everyone knew how important representation was in his moving acceptance speech.
Now, after many years of embracing his heritage as an American with Yemeni and Jewish roots, Stachel is reflecting on what’s happening with the roles he’s been given. The result is a solo show that the performer has been gestating since his days in The Band’s Visit. With the help of theatre director Tony Taccone, Stachel is developing his skills as a writer. “My impulse was to just share my story, but I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to learn how to write my story,” he says.
The drive to put pen to paper came again from feeling the lack of representation. “If you feel pigeon-holed, you have to take matters into your own hands,” Stachel adds. The story itself will follow his childhood during which he took on multiple identities—a tool that helped drive him towards a career in theatre. “I was surviving by playing other characters and roles probably from the age of eight...my acting training was high school and trying to fit in and the way that I just felt the need to inhabit a character, other than myself.”
Creating something an autobiographical piece that's more than just a re-telling of one's childhood is challenging. Stachel is creating an entire world with a fully formed character that lives within it. Creating a piece that is ready to be seen by audiences takes time, which runs counter to everything in his generation’s drive to constantly achieve and prove one’s self. “The people that I really respect have spent a lot of time in the trenches. It takes time for a reason, because I think anything worthwhile does.” Still, working Taccone and getting constant rewrites and feedback felt “a little maddening” at first.
Now, a year into the pandemic, Stachel has developed patience and learned to appreciate how slowly the process has been moving. “It created space for me to actually find what I wanted to say in a way that is so much deeper than what I thought I wanted to say.” While there’s no timeline yet, Stachel says that after The Visitor, this is his next project. “It is every bit my intention to put this piece into the world. I'm very optimistic about it.”
In the meantime, the star is eager to get back to NYC to get the COVID-19 vaccine alongside other members of the theatre community and reunite with his co-stars. “David Hyde Pierce and Jacqueline Antaramian are just some of the most incredible actors. I can just tell you that it is rare for a group of people to care as much about a piece of art as the group of people in The Visitor do.”
Before theatres re-open, audiences can check out the star on screen in the upcoming film Zola, co-penned by Slave Play creator Jeremy O. Harris. Stachel also plays the recurring character Sergeant Hasim Khaldu in Law & Order: SVU.