By Khaleel Herbert
It was May 26, 2014 and like any typical day, New York playwright and actor Sarah Bierstock flipped on her television to the news. She watched in horror at the aftermath of the murder of Farzana Parveen, a woman from Lahore, Pakistan who was the victim of an honor killing by her father, brother, cousin and former fiancé in broad daylight on the outside steps of a high court. BBC reported later that year that Parveen was beaten with bricks and sticks. Policemen stood and watched the killing, claiming she was dead before they could intervene.
Bierstock was shaken to the point that thoughts and images of Parveen’s murder flooded her mind. She started writing a day or so after seeing Parveen’s husband admitted that he killed his first wife so he could marry Parveen. In 10 days, she wrote the bare bones of her play appropriately titled Honor Killing. Bierstock says the play focuses on Allisyn, an American journalist, who investigates the honor killing of a Pakistani woman. Allisyn’s vested interest in women’s rights in Pakistan stems from an American gang rape that occurred in her past (which is also based on a real-life story that happened in America).
Honor Killing debuted at the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota, Florida earlier this year, and featured in theater’s new works or development series from Guild Hall Theater of East Hampton Inc. to The Bridge Initiative: Women in Theater in Arizona and more. Now Bierstock can add the Mile High City to the list because on Sept. 8, the play takes residence at Denver’s Elaine Wolf Theatre Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. and weekends through Sept. 30 under the production of Athena Project, a Denver organization dedicated to empowering women in the arts. The cast includes Caitlin Conklin as Allisyn, Seth Palmer Harris, Yasmin Sweets, Jihad Milhem, Lisa Kraai and more.
Honor Killing was chosen during Athena Project’s Plays in Progress development series in 2017. Bierstock was elated by the news.
“I really never expected the luxury of having Athena Project produce their own full production just four months later,” Bierstock says. “This is extremely unusual and such a gift to a playwright–to be able to see two completely different versions of the play right on the heels of each other.”
Angela Astle, founder of Athena Project and director of Honor Killing, says the reader pool for Plays in Progress are made up of past and present Athena supporters and board members who made the decision to choose Honor Killing from over 250 other scripts submitted.
“There were many to choose from, but the process almost always has to do with a combination of feelings about the script among the decision makers. What kinds of conversations we think we will have with the audience and is this the right time to produce this play?” Astle says. “In this case, Honor Killing reached all the points as well as it was helpful that it already had its world premiere by the time we were deciding.”
Astle explains this was the first time the decision committee chose a script that already had a production. She says this was an opportunity for playwrights to fine-tune their script.
“Sarah is eager to listen and be a resource, but she’s equally willing to be hands off and understands the hierarchy and roles we have in the theater community,” Astle says. “I really appreciate her ability to speak up, but also acknowledge that the script is open to interpretation.”
Bierstock agrees that her play aligns with the #MeToo Movement while also addressing timeless issues women face.
“None of these issues–misogyny, inequality, violence and aggression toward women–are new in our culture or globally. The #MeToo Movement may have found its apex in 2018 in the United States, but its momentum is built off many years of mistreatment and abuse,” Bierstock says. “Women are rising above potential consequences–shame, loss of work, disbelief, character attacks and more–to use their voices to say this has to stop and reminding other women that they are not alone.”
Bierstock adds that the play asks the audience to look at how women are treated in Western culture before pointing fingers at other cultures and automatically deciding that Western culture is right.
“It has always been my intention to tell a story that I could speak personally to,” Bierstock says. “Not, rather, to speak for a people or culture that I cannot intrinsically understand.”