It is a school play like none I have ever seen, not least because the girls onstage and their parents in the audience could die at any moment just for being here. At the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s Ninth Youth Performing Arts Festival, held in Lahore’s Muamar Gaddafy Stadium on November 30, 2010, I sit in the front row with the festival’s gray-pony-tailed organizer, Faizan Peerzada, and his pretty teenage daughter, Nur, who wears red tennis shoes and a jaunty cap. At least eight thousand people have died across Pakistan in fundamentalist terrorism, mostly at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban, in the previous three years. This violence hits Lahore hard: there were forty-four terror attacks here alone in 2010. The last World Performing Arts Festival the Peerzadas held in this place was bombed, producing rain of glass.
As I look at the promoter a few seats over, I wonder how much anxiety he feels, with a chorus of kids on stage in front of him, his own child beside him. They are all here because he has convened them. He told me earlier: “It is a very stressful thing. You talk more about security these days than the creativity.” I hold my breath, wondering whether they will get to the end of the show.
Faizan’s father, Nur’s grandfather—for whom the theatre company is named—was Rafi Peerzada, an anticolonial activist–turned–playwright who trained in England and Germany, where he mingled with Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. He returned to Pakistan to revolutionize its theatre with a series of plays such as “Naqab,” about the bombing of Hiroshima. At his death in 1974, Rafi Peerzada’s children took over his theatre company and renamed it in his memory. Over the years, they have staged music, dance, and puppet festivals and a wide array of plays—everything from Rafi Peerzada’s own “Raz-o-Niaz” to Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park”—in different venues. Many of their productions are geared toward children, and all have the goal of preserving Pakistan’s rich tradition of performing arts. While the end result is often dazzling, the road to get there has not been smooth.