It’s not everyday that one has the opportunity to “meet” neighbors you never knew before, but a play, “The Hindu and the Cowboy” offers just that chance. The one-act play is based on true stories of people from diverse faith and cultural backgrounds who live in the Kansas City area. Kansas City Star reporter Steve Penn, quoting playwright Donna W. Ziegenhorn, wrote about the story from which the play’s title comes: “When the Hindus were building their temple in the 1980s . . . the temple’s president and his wife went to the site and saw what appeared to be a cowboy with a gun sitting on a horse . . . The cowboy is looking out, making sure nobody takes advantage of the Hindus or brings harm to the temple. The Hindus are wondering who is this guy?” Ziegenhorn said.
The story of their interaction – where mistrust and false assumption play a big part – unfolds over the course of the play. Among other stories are a young Muslim and his surprise encounter with New York City firefighters following 9-11, an African American pastor and his once enslaved grandmother, and a Polish Jew and her experience of sacrifice and survival.
“The Hindu and the Cowboy” stems from the Mosaic Life Stories Project, an idea sparked at Kansas City’s 2001 Gifts of Pluralism Conference. Mosaic, an ad hoc group, envisioned interfaith community not as a ‘melting pot,’ but as a mosaic in which each faith has its own integrity and identity and contributes to the beautiful full image. In particular, Mosaic volunteers believed in the power of human story in dramatic form. Under the guidance of project designer and playwright Donna W. Ziegenhorn, the Mosaic project encouraged people to come forward and tell the stories they had lived, the stories that had affected them in a visceral way. Through personal recording-sessions and story-telling circles, seven volunteers collected and transcribed more than 80 interviews that fill three two-inch binders.
Individuals of many faith traditions were interviewed: American Indian, Baha’i, Buddhist, Christian (Protestant and Catholic), Hindu, Islam, Jain, Judaism, Pagan, Sikh Dharma, Sufi, Unitarian Universalist, Zoroastrian, and unaffiliated. The actual play includes stories from eight faith traditions.
The play, first titled “The Hindu and the Cowboy . . . and other Kansas City Stories” and now shortened to “The Hindu and the Cowboy,” premiered in 2004 at the Kansas City Harmony Luncheon. Since then, it has been staged 25 times to a variety of audiences including colleges, churches, conferences, seminaries, high schools, and corporate diversity trainings. Kansas City’s Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre produces the play. The show features a multi-cultural cast of nine persons who portray more than one character. The show runs one hour, and a talkback with actors, playwright and often follows.
For the past five years, the Kansas City Festival of Faiths has offered free public performances of “The Hindu and the Cowboy.” In 2010, surveys revealed that 41% of the audience indicated this was their ‘first interfaith event.’ Sixty percent of those rated the play “extremely valuable.” Collaborating with Kansas City organizations like the Kansas City Public Library allows the play to reach beyond those already active in interfaith work. Ziegenhorn emphasizes that a big aspect of the play’s success has been expanding the base of people who take part in interfaith activity.
The play has an impact in corporate settings as well, as seen when presented by Hallmark Marketing Corporation’s Customer Development Division. Afterward, (then) Vice-president of Category Management Patrick Gahagan said the play received numerous enthusiastic comments and provided an opportunity for small group follow up discussions. He said it was a “compelling multicultural, interfaith experience. These are the stories and performances that touch and change people.”
Educators are also enthusiastic about “The Hindu and the Cowboy.” One educator said the play is “ . . . a masterpiece . . . one that needs to be shared with many, many people. It embodies the grace of relationships in the midst of a world of separation.”
Although rooted in Kansas City, the stories of “The Hindu and the Cowboy” transcend regional boundaries and strike chords of common human emotion and experience. Ziegenhorn said, “The stories confront questions we all grapple with. What is my identity? How far will I go to stand my ground? Where do I draw the line?” She added that the dramatic form allows the audience to enter someone else’s reality and move around in at a safe distance.
Vern Barnet, in his Faith & Beliefs column in the Kansas City Star, wrote about the play, “No lecture or sheaf of statistics can better reveal the surprising texture of faith and skepticism among us.”
 “KC’s faith story plays out on stage.” Vern Barnet. The Kansas City Star. 11 October 2003. Reprinted on the Center for Religious Experience and Study website. http://www.cres.org/star/star2010.htm.