A Conversation with Purva Bedi, Sanjit De Silva, Rita Wolf, Angel Desai, Sathya Sridharan, and Andrew Hovelson
Walking into the room that held much of the cast of An Ordinary Muslim felt like walking into a family home during Sunday dinner. Despite the seriousness of the play, the atmosphere was light and warm behind the scenes—it was a joy to be a part of it. I sat down with Sanjit De Silva (who plays Azeem, the protagonist), Purva Bedi (Saima, the wife), Rita Wolf (Malika, the mother), Angel Desai (Javeria, the sister), Sathya Sridharan (Hamza, the lover), and Andrew Hovelson (David, the token white friend, and here, the most sarcastic of the bunch) to discuss being the odd one out, in life and in the industry, the psychological mindset that changes when one is no longer the minority of the room (or vice versa), and of course, An Ordinary Muslim, playing at the New York Theatre Workshop until March 25th.
Michelle Tse: So I want to start with asking you all what the phrase “an ordinary Muslim” means to you.
Andrew Hovelson: Ladies?
Angel Desai: That’s so weird, I hadn’t thought of that!
Sanjit De Silva: Well, I guess, I was taught that … For me, at least, it’s what we just talked about [before we started taping], ‘normalization’, right? There’s a sense that people have a pre-judgment when you say ‘Muslim.’ They have a judgment of it being monolithic. They think of the Middle East, they think terrorism, they think ISIS, or they have these prejudged versions that seem to be super stereotypes of what ‘Muslim’ means. And the title An Ordinary Muslim means just an ordinary person. Muslim is just what another person can be. Another person can be Catholic, another person can be French, another person can be from Tennessee … somebody who’s just an ordinary Muslim; and I think it’s trying to regain that moniker, you know? Trying to make it just another thing a person can be, not necessarily this monolithic thing that has to stand for something.
Purva Bedi: And as it relates to this play, for me, I think of it as—yes, what Sanjit just said—and also, you see these—how many are we, seven? How many Muslims, how many…?
Angel: Seven Muslims.
Purva: Seven Muslim characters in this play and all of [them] are an ordinary Muslim. And yet, all of ISIS and terrorism and all of that is a part of [their] language and identity as the way the world is seeing [them] as well. For example, my character’s conflicting feelings about two different men in her life and all the others things that just makes [these characters] complicated, ordinary human beings. So the Muslim part has a strong color, but so does humanity, and to me, that’s an ordinary Muslim.
Angel: I feel like there are layers to it, because there’s hope in it, and there’s paradox in it. Hope, in the sense of—as Sanjit was saying—ordinary, like parsing what that word means, ordinary in the sense of “can we normalize this?” But also then there’s the other connotation “ordinary” like “not-special,” just sort of “meh.” So to me, there’s an irony because, as Purva was just saying, there are seven different aspects of what it means to be Muslim [just in this play alone]—especially in England, now [where the play takes place]. And so, which one is ordinary, right? Does it negate itself by the fact that there are seven different aspects to it? And yet, there’s the hope of “can we move ourselves to the place where these don’t have to be unusual stories where the struggle that Azeem goes through throughout the play isn’t something that the next generation has to face? Can we get to a place where we can do that?”And yet, the paradox is that there’s nothing ordinary about any of it, right?
Rita Wolf: I think it’s a very clever title. I was just thinking about this as other people were being so articulate about it. Muslim, the word “Muslim” itself now is so hot. It’s such a hot word. It’s in conversation and people, as Sanjit’s saying, have such preconceptions. But putting “ordinary” in front of it is very clever. Because it takes that heat away from the word “Muslim,” and tries to make it every day. Some friends of mine who’ve seen this play—refer to it as “the Muslim play.” No. The title of the play is An Ordinary Muslim, now think about that. So it takes the curse of that word, if you will.
Michelle: So how has the experience been immersing yourself into the Muslim culture? Because from my knowledge, none of you are practicing?
Sathya Sridharan: Right.
Sanjit: [points to Andrew, jokingly] He’s been converted — Hammaad [Chaudry, the playwright] has plans to do a conversion in the sequel on David.
Andrew: I think it’s been very helpful that there isn’t a practicing Muslim in the cast. Or Muslim period. Because we’ve all had tons of questions about the religious aspects, the words, the terminology, how people would go through their day-to-day life. And when you get hot-button topics like this, people can tend to dominate the rehearsal room—in good or bad ways, really, that’s not a judgment. It’s just that we all had a lot of the same questions which I found to be very helpful.
Sathya: I also think we come into this play with a lot of preconceived notions of what the Muslim experience might be for anybody. But to be able to really ask those questions, and not be precious about it, but feel like we want to do these characters justice, we want to really excavate the interiority of these characters and really find the specific nuances and the ways that they approach their relationship to their religion, I think, for me at least, it’s given me boatloads of new kinds of compassion and empathy towards what it means to Muslim, especially in the UK. It’s just a kind of experience that I didn’t realize how wrought it was and how difficult it can be. And so I’ve had many assumptions about it, but to actually read this play, work on this play, navigate this play, has gifted me that in a lot of ways.
Andrew: Because Islam is a religion, just as Christianity is, just as Judaism is. And there is, within all of those, a trillion different ways that people practice. And what’s very exciting about what Hammaad has written is that these characters themselves, even the blood relatives, or married relatives, all practice differently. So that’s part of the joy of being an actor, is that you get to learn some new stuff. Now if you came in and I said, “I’m Muslim, this is how I practice,” And I [told you], “you would never do that. You would never do that. You would never do that, this is the way this does,” it’s not really beneficial towards a rehearsal process or coming up with any sort of engaging drama at the end of the day.
Angel: And also, truthful. Because, like you said, if there are a million ways to practice, you could say, “Well, we don’t do that.” But then that person might say, “Well, we did.”
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah.
Angel: Church, temple, mosque, whatever.
Sanjit: And I think that the question itself is tricky, right? We’re assuming there’s one way of being, and I think that this play is actually specifically about a Pakistani Muslim family in London, and it all is specifically very South-Asian, ‘cause Islam practice in South Asia is different from China, different from the Middle East, from Africa. So there is no monolithic-Muslim ideal in any case. So when you talk about this play, I would say, “Well it’s a specific play about a Pakistani practice who are Muslim and who live in London.” Right?
So I think that was the most important thing. We had someone named Sahar Ullah come in, who talked about the Jamaat, the Tablighi Jamaat, which is very specific to South Asia. So learning about that was really important. I actually think I would’ve loved to have somebody who was Muslim [acting] in this play. I think we would have benefited from it a lot. And specifically South Asian Muslim, because that is very different from Middle Eastern. I think, and hopefully, in other productions, there will be, and they should be, specifically Pakistani Muslims. I’d love to see this play with all Pakistani Muslim actors. That would be incredible.
So for that, it was about learning the specifics of it. And of course, Hammaad is Pakistani Muslim, so having him in the room is incredible because he is the primary source. He wrote it, he lived it, he knows things. But as we found out, sometimes he would say stuff, and Sahar would be like, “Nah, that’s wrong.”
Angel: Jo [Bonney, the director]’s assistant [Shayok Misha Chowdhury], is…
Sanjit: He’s Bengali.
Angel: So we actually had a few Muslim people in the room…
Sanjit: Who all said different, yeah so, that was lovely to see too. To have Hammaad go, “actually, I don’t know,” Then Sahar go, “Actually, no, that’s wrong. It’s actually…”
Purva: Because Sahar would specifically help us with distinguishing South Asian Muslim pronunciation of a word versus a more Arabic pronunciation, which is going to be a little bit purer depending on where we are—where our characters are, each in our relation to our religion.
Angel: But beyond that too, just origins of history and gestures and so, to add to your question, has as many answers as there are people.
Michelle: Yes, right. So I did wanna ask you, Andrew, now, specifically…
Andrew: Yes! [leans in to the recorder] This question is for the Whitey McWhite Face.
Sanjit: [jokingly, to the recorder] Press pause!
Michelle: This isn’t the first time where you’ve been in the show where you, the white man, have been the minority.
Andrew: No, this is not.
Michelle: Can you talk about that?
Sanjit: He’s the go-to white-actor-being-the-minority in a play.
Rita: He’s a friend to the brown man.
Andrew: I enjoy it. I’ve played a few characters like this. I grew up in a very small farm town in Minnesota, where everyone was white. We had one black kid who was a friend of ours and, that’s it! So…
Rita: Were his parents white?
Rita: The black kids parents, were they white?
Andrew: I’m not sure his parents were in the picture, to be honest.
Andrew: Not for me! It wasn’t awkward for me! It’s awkward for—I also find that when I say something and it’s awkward, it’s awkward for them, not for me.
[Everyone joins in with an opinion]
Rita: Welcome to our cast.
Andrew: That’s it! That’s it, there’s only one way to go about this play from my standpoint as David Adkins and it’s as a white man surrounded by brown people in a world where a lot of people, maybe that I grew up with, are afraid that Muslims are bad people. And if they’re not afraid of that, they’re just afraid of seeing people that don’t look like them. That’s it. You just see white people in rural Minnesota. So when you see something new, anywhere, you have a judgment about it, right? So in a process like this, I’m thankful enough to have lived in New York for a while, and a lot of the new plays that are being written have a lot more people with different skin colors than I have.
It’s an exciting thing in the rehearsal room for me to be there as the only person of my—well, the only actor, I should say—of my skin color. But it’s exciting for me because I do not have the history of any sort of oppression at all. So that works in my favor as an actor, but if I were the other way, if I were any of these people, and I was the only person of color in the play, that’s a whole different ballgame. Because there’s a history there that that sort of ratio doesn’t always work out well, you know?
For me, I’m happy to have a job, and I’m really happy to be able to say some stuff that pushes the envelope a bit, good or bad, it doesn’t matter, that’s fun on stage. That’s fun on stage, so then it’s fun to explore. I had two really, really bleach blonde white boys. And it’s incredibly important for them as they grow up in New York City to be able to talk about this stuff is good—and to have an opinion about it, in one way, and to have some compassion about it, even if their opinion doesn’t match with everyone else’s opinion. So maybe I try to do a little bit of that, if that’s possible in a rehearsal room.
Rita: That was a very gracious answer, Andrew, if I may say so.
Andrew: Thank you.
Sanjit: Except for the “these people” part.
Andrew: I do believe the biggest racist in the cast is [gestures toward Sanjit]…
Sanjit: That’s how you end an interview!
Rita: The reason I say I think it’s gracious is that you’re even thinking about what it might be like in that reverse situation, which, we have all been in as actors, where you are, a minority in a cast that’s predominately white.
Michelle: Right, and that’s actually my next question, which is for everyone else. The experience of finally not being the only one or only two in the cast, and then, to … be able to play well-rounded characters.
Sanjit: Three-dimensional, complex human beings? Yeah. This is the first time—and I’ve been an actor for many, many years—where I’ve been in a play where it’s a majority of South Asian people. That has never happened—
Angel: To him.
Sanjit: To me. That’s never happened to me. And so that is astounding to me, that I can go that long. And it’s like one other time when I’ve done a play with—I did a play with NAATCO. It was all Asian actors, and it was the first time [I had been in that situation, so] I didn’t realize until I was in that scenario how much pressure and angst I had in rooms where it was mostly white. Until I was in a room where I didn’t have to explain myself to anybody, I went, “Oh my god! This is what white people feel like to be just in a room with all white people! They don’t have to explain themselves!”
Sathya: You only have to correct one person’s pronunciation, versus like, the whole room.
Sanjit: And I was like, “Oh my god! This whole time I’ve been a professional actor, I haven’t had that experience.” Except when I did this play with NAATCO, and now here. And it has blown my mind and made me wanna be more and more in rooms that are more diverse, you know? And sometimes, you don’t even understand it, until you’re in a room surrounded by people. And so it’s like, I didn’t even understand it, and so it is great that you did say that there is a sense of oppression there. But I didn’t get that, understand that feeling until I was in a room where I didn’t have that, and I didn’t realize how much it weighed on the brain.
I think that’s one of the things that Hammaad has written so beautifully about this play is the way culture and society are white Supremacist structures, colonialist structures—they impinge on people’s brains in a way that is so subconscious. The anger and the insecurity that come, the frustration is there because of these structures that are almost invisible. But they are there on a daily basis, pushing down, you know? And so it’s, for me, it’s been a beautiful experience being surrounded by it.
Purva: Well that is the kind of stuff they teach you in Drama School. I didn’t go to Drama School, but I know that it is, those kinds of—the very thing that Sanjit’s talking about—that psychological freedom, or lack of freedom, is probably something that you only experience when you’re out in the working world.
Angel: Yeah. Because it’s a bubble in school. School doesn’t represent the professional reality in any way, shape, or form. Let alone that.
Andrew: I would say there’s a couple of us that have gone through NYU, through Mark Wing-Davey—who happens to be a tall, white Brit who has these conversations often.
Rita: Good man.
Andrew: And he has them unemotionally. He finds that that—in a good and bad way, right? But he finds that incredibly important to talk to the students about. About how you’re gonna talk about these things.
Angel: But we talked about it too before—with Zelda, I mean; he’s continuing a tradition and all that. But, you can talk about it, but I was still the only Asian person in my class. And so when discussions of race came up, and there hasn’t been an Asian student in the Grad program in the last three, four years—I’m meaning the ones now. So that’s gonna be three years without any Asian person.
Angel: Yep. And so, just to feel that, to have … I had a different experience professionally in that, I got to do a play about an Indian family like two years out of school. And I tended to be in mixed casts. But then I often was the token person, even in an all black—I did this mostly black musical at Playwrights Horizons, and it was so much fun, but I was still the token non-black, non-white person.
And also, because I’m mixed Indian and Filipina, then there’s even more of that, because it’s a struggle to get into all Indian rooms and all Filipino rooms. And so, there’s a lot of those layers, but I was conscious earlier, maybe because of Rice Boy, which was the play [I did early on], or maybe because of all the different kinds of experiences, I was conscious that—
Sanjit: That’s the last time you were in a room with mostly South Asians, right?
Angel: [No,] The Monsoon Wedding lab. But … Yeah. There was a huge gap, but again, there’s also another layer for me, because then I get excluded, and can’t get into the Indian rooms because they don’t even see me as…
Sathya: I will say having had a shorter professional lifespan than all these folkies here … I will say, it feels—if I can spin it positive—this feels like being home. In a very amazing way. I mean, when you can walk into a room and not have to … There are so many things that are already given circumstances, you know? There are so many things that we just don’t have to explain or … It’s amazing to come into a room where the two older gentlemen in the play are just speaking Hindi to each other in the corner and, to think, we have chaat on breaks, or Angel’s making Chai in the kitchen, we’re all coming in for chaat. Like that kind of stuff; you’re never gonna get that! Because there’s a sense of family, a sense of like, yeah, we can pick on each other, and pick away at each other, but that feels like home! Also, I mean, partially cause a lot of these folks have known each other for a while, but it feels like…
Rita: Isn’t that nice?
Sathya: And that’s been super incredible, like a lot of folks have worked with each other, and there’s already a built-in sense of family, and you add on top of that shared experience of culture or, being a first generation, or an immigrant to this country. It’s so comforting. It’s so comforting.
Rita: You know that there are many performers who have that?
Sathya: Sure! But like…
Rita: No, that’s what I’m saying. You’re saying that it’s that comforting and reassuring when you have that. There are people who have that every time they go through life.
Sanjit: Whoa! Right… that’s the norm…
Rita: Every project in their life. That’s going to be that. And they know it.
Sathya: Except we … Not that they might, but we don’t take it for granted.
Rita: No, we don’t take it for granted. But what I’m saying is the thing that [Michelle is] talking about and, apropos to what Sanjit was talking about, in terms of the psychological aspects of that is huge. I think.
Purva: So I’d love to add on to that.
Michelle: Please do.
Sanjit: [leans in to recorder] This is Purva Bedi, the star of “American Desi.”
Andrew: [leans in to recorder] Her next show is…
Sathya: Dance Nation!
Andrew: [sings] Dance, dance Nation! Dance, dance Nation! Dance, dance Nation! Nation!
Purva: Anyway … I don’t know if I can go on.
Michelle: Hah! Please go on!
Andrew: Go. Sorry.
Purva: I was gonna say—
Andrew: Sorry. Kind of.
Purva: Is right out of college, I started acting. And I was really scared because I did study theater and I had no idea what kind of opportunities would be out there, because looking around, I saw nothing for me. I saw nothing. I was very lucky in my first year to connect with an experimental theater company called Target Margin Theater, where their entire mandate is about diversity and inclusion and normalization. And that was what I attributed so much of my work came from that company. And then I was really blessed that early in my career, I got “American Desi,” which was the first Indian-American rom-com independent. Immediately followed by East is East, which was the other play that had a lot of South Asian people in it. In 1999!
Angel: Rice Boy was the same year.
Purva: Right. And I also was in the West Coast premiere of Rice Boy, the play that Angel was in the East Coast premiere of. So there were these little beautiful, gorgeous nuggets really early in my career and then it was sort of … not a lot. I was spoiled early, and then told: “It’s not really gonna be like that.”
Rita: You weren’t spoiled, you were a working actor.
Sanjit: What people call normal, we call spoiled.
Purva: Right. But you know what I mean.
Rita: I know what you mean.
Purva: There were a couple other movies like “Green Card Fever”—that was another one that was a movie made by South Asians for South Asians.
Sathya: Were you in it?
Purva: Uh-huh! I’m in it.
Sathya: Oh, I’m watching it now.
Purva: Yup. Yup.
Sathya: I was a big “American Desi” fan as a middle-schooler.
Purva: When Sathya and I first met, he went totally fangirl on me.
Andrew: [jokingly] Me too. But what are you gonna do?
Purva: But like Sathya said about coming home, those projects are the ones where I had that kind of experience of a real heart opening of like, I love my work, and I love these people that I get to work with. Not that I don’t love white people.
Rita: You’re married to one, girlfriend.
Andrew: Yeah, come on now.
Purva: I’m married to a white man. And we have a child together. He’s Jewish though, so, does that count?
Michelle: For the sake of this conversation right now, let’s say yes.
Andrew: Like the line in the play.
Purva: What did I want to say?
Andrew: That it was good, you said.
Purva: Yes and here we are, and I will say, and I’ve said this to everyone in this cast numerous times that it’s like … can I say the F-word?
Michelle: Fuck yes.
Purva: It’s a fucking joy coming in and every day walking to the theater. I feel lightness in my heart even though we’re doing such a very serious and intense play. And when I get on that stage for that first moment, it’s like … Yeah, I just feel love and light for this play and this experience with these people. And the creators, and the rehearsal room too, right?
Andrew: Yeah, this rehearsal room, there was only one way to go about it. And that’s how we did it, and I don’t know, I mean for me, right? I can’t explain to everyone else cause you have to … The last play that I did like this, somebody had … the writer of the play also directed, right? That wasn’t gonna happen this time, okay?
So it was their material, that’s wasn’t gonna happen this time, so it was a huge collaboration and there was, somehow, Jo Bonney and Hammaad, and the administrative powers that be really created a room where anything could be said, anything could be asked, you wouldn’t feel stupid about it, and any opinion could be thrown out that could be important. They said, “I don’t like that, that makes me feel…” And that was the exciting part about it, rather than the, “Oh my god, we’re getting into this again,” that was the exciting part. I mean Harsh [Nayyar], the actor who plays Imran, the Imam who comes in at the end, we had done a workshop and he knew so much about partition, and he kept bringing this up in the workshop. And it became—it’s in the play now. And it informs the play so well about the dad, Ranjit’s character. I’ve lived through … It wasn’t a good time. So I was hoping that here in London would be a better time, you know?
But some of those conversations, when they were brought up, were hard to have, and Jo and Hammaad let them happen. Let the actors be heard, let the actors make mistakes, and let the actors be passionate about both their characters and the subject matter. And I think that’s why we all have such an ownership over this. I’m on stage for two scenes, but I feel like they’re my scenes because Sanjit and I have talked about it enough that we were allowed to do that.
Sanjit: Andrew, my scenes. But yeah, but I definitely want him to feel like they’re his scenes.
Angel: I wondered if I had missed a question.
Rita: No it was a comment, it wasn’t really a question.
Michelle: He just had some thoughts after Purva’s comment.
Andrew: Remember when [Michelle] said this is more of a conversation? Good.
Rita: I’m still getting over the fact that Sathya used ‘interior excavation.’
Sathya: Come on, baby!
Sanjit: No, no, no, no. He used the word ‘interiority.’ It doesn’t even make … That’s not a word!
Sathya: That’s a thing. That’s a thing!
Sanjit: No it’s not!
Sathya: Interiority is a thing that people academics use! It is totally a word guys!
Angel: It is not!
Sanjit: That’s a word. It’s a good word.
Andrew: Oh, he wants a washed view of the Ivy League of the Midwest.
Michelle: So I want to end with, actually … The two scenes that Sanjit and Andrew were in that are “yours,” because those are the ones that we talked about the most as—
Angel: [jokingly] Should we leave?
Michelle: No! No, it’s a question for everyone.
Sanjit: The pub scenes we’re talking about.
Michelle: Yes, because…
Purva: The English pub scenes.
Andrew: You fuckers!
Angel: Let her ask the question.
[Editor’s note: There are two scenes in the play that take place in a pub, where the protagonist and his white friend—played by Sanjit and Andrew, respectively—confront each other about race and privilege, through the protagonist’s need for a promotion at their company.]
Michelle: In this current climate, those scenes can translate the most closely into everyone’s real life, I think. Watching those two scenes in particular, I was energized and exhausted because I could relate to the idea of I’m so exhausted talking about this, but if I don’t talk about it, that person will, from now on, shy away from this topic, of trying to have the empathy, or the fill in the blank. Whatever it is in the context of a conversation you’d have in real life—and I’m certain we all have moments in mind—I would love to hear your thoughts on staying open without over-exhausting.
Sanjit: You mean, specifically, on racism? Or White Supremacy? Or Colonialism, or politics? Or all of those?
Michelle: Any and all of that. To me, it’s all intersected.
Purva: And you’re saying that you’re becoming exhausted having the conversation but…
Michelle: Yes, and then the worry of if I don’t exhaust myself with this conversation now, is that person then going to put up a wall about this subject from now on?
Rita: I’ll kick it off. I must say that those scenes, when I first read them, and when we started rehearsing them, seemed to me a little bit dialectic. They seemed a little like … Where there’s complexity … character-filled things in the rest of the play, those seemed very much like scenes about ideas and two people talking across purposes or trying to find a common ground with their ideas. And I thought, “Hmm. I wonder how that’s gonna play when we do it,” Because at the moment, are people going to sit and listen to what are basically ideas, and as you’re saying, things that they might be exhausted about hearing, in a way. But in the play of it, and in the way that people respond to those things as part of a bigger play, I really see how necessary they are. Because you can’t take for granted anything about someone who might come and see your play. Particularly a play like this. And how much they might need to hear that stuff.
We may not need to, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not essential. And we might, but I would listen to it and nod and feel “yes,” but other people might have their minds blown by this stuff, because they’ve actually never heard it, let alone heard it in a play before. Where you have a brown character and a white character as friends talking together.
Angel: To go off this way from that, what’s actually not exhausting but what I’ve noticed about certain friends who have come, is the ones who don’t talk about the politics of … In just the terms of this play, I think in general, in life, I’m feeling you because there’s a general exhaustion in that I’ve been having, and I’m like engaging with people less and less, I do it less and less, ‘cause I’m really tired.
But in terms of this play, the politics, what’s been really interesting is to see the people who talk only about the things that they see about the play itself. Like, actor friends who are like, “well, this part of the play structurally and this part of the play…” And I’m like, “Right, but did you hear the play?” Yes, it’s a first-time play, yes there’s first-time playwright stuff going on, for sure. But what do you think? And so for me, there’s actually a part of me that wants just get in there and be like, “So, yeah but what about, what about the play?” You heard what those people are saying, you heard what we were saying. What? The people who avoid it.
Sanjit: I’ve had a lot of conversations where people come and say “thank you, thank you for this play. Thank you for the pub scenes because finally, you’re saying it.” And I gotta be honest, when I first read the play, I thought, “Oh my god! I only say this in front of brown people! I’m not gonna get in front of white people or paying customers and say this to them!” And I thought, “Thank god! It’s about time!” There is stuff in this play that I’ve said in private to people who are also South Asian of color, or African-American and I’m like, “Wow, we’re gonna say this on stage.” And I think some people who are reacting like, “Oh, that’s too much,” But it’s like “No, that is exactly how much rage and frustration is actually there.” You know? And it’s amazing when people, South Asian, African-American friends would come like, “I get it. You can just transpose African-American in there because I get it.”
And the great thing about this pub scene is that they are complicated, and a lot of stuff that David says is also correct and both make arguments that come from a very personal place that they’re both making very good arguments. I think that’s why those work, they wouldn’t work if we tipped to one side or the other, but they work because they’re both really coming at it from their personal point of views and their both making really good points of view. Smart, articulate points of view. And I think that’s why it’s so hard to watch, cause you’re like, on one side, then the other side, and you’re just left like, “Oh my god.”
Andrew: Yeah. For me, more than that, I probably want to…I would’ve done this play cause I needed a job. Is that the reason that there…
Rita: Was it that severe?
Andrew: Yeah, come on! I needed a job!
They’re making these points because they’re friends, and they’re going after a human connection, right? So they are on the same page with a lot of stuff, but these certain things happen to be triggered in Azeem’s life that brings what David already knew [deep down] onto the surface. When David says, “Well I’ll help you out as a friend, ‘cause I don’t want you to feel this way.” Then by him helping, it makes things so much worse. And at that point, when Azeem says, “I’ve never hated myself so much,” As hard as everyone’s trying, you never want to see your friends feel bad about themselves. I will never, ever, ever have a South Asian experience because I’m white. I just won’t have that. And for someone to say “I’ve never felt this bad about myself.” And you [as a white person] have tried everything you have to just help him feel good about himself… it doesn’t go very well!
Those scenes work, because, at that point, there are two ways they can go. They can say, “We’re throwing up our hands. This isn’t working,” [or] I start saying, “Well, go back. Okay, go back [to beg for the job],” [and he says], “I’m not going back to a racist.” And they really fight for trying to help each other, all the way until the end. Sometimes it’s not going to work. Sometimes it’s going to work really, really well. And sometimes, that’s not enough.
Does that make David a racist? I don’t know. Does it make him practical? Probably. Does it mean that Azeem hasn’t been screwed out of his mind every day walking into subtle racism? That’s the thing that I think white people don’t get, is the subtle racism. We just don’t get it.
Angel: Or even if it’s not a joke, the thing that Sanjit was referring to early on when you asked about our professional experiences, of just even if there’s never a joke, but of just feeling alone, and feeling like there’s this thing that it’s like, “I’m the other, I’m the other thing,” And most of the time, it’s varying levels, right, of either feeling a bigger gap like this or a gap like that. And then when you get into discussions of how that translates into policy and law outside of the theater, outside of—because ultimately, we are all theater actors. Ultimately we come in, we make little homes and families and have fun where we go and do stuff, even with something as rich as this. But then to go out into the world…
Andrew: Because Azeem says, “Give me my dignity back.” But no one can give you your dignity. You just can’t do it. And that’s heartbreaking and so then you kinda have to get into a fight and stick up for yourself. Say, “What did I do to take your dignity? Because I’m willing to try to help you get it back,” but the line has been crossed. But we’re fighting ’til the end to do something, you know? You can’t enter into these discussions knowing where you want to go at the end.
Angel: Yes, but the more you have them out in the real world, the more exhausted you get.
Purva: And that’s what I love about your question, right? You talk about how exhausting it is to have these conversations in the real world, and the beauty of what we get to do is we get to make it art. And we don’t, we’re saying, we’re gonna show you this possibility of a possible conversation and you get to think about it, comment on it, or, in the case of some of Angel’s friends, choose not to comment on it. Only let in as much as you can let in today. But by presenting this work of art, and the other kinds of work that we’re doing that engage in these conversations, we’re showing these dialogues happening. We’re showing what Azeem is going through. And the pain of talking to his white friend about this, and having their friendship rupture over this, over the racism in their society. So I think we’re not having the conversation, we’re doing something else, which, to me, is very exciting.
Rita: Yeah, yeah the exhaustion happens outside—
Purva: The exhaustion is at the bar after the show. Which we get to have.
Rita: And the anxious energy, you can feel people just … The other night? I will say, there was spontaneous applause.
Sanjit: Yeah when I said, “just beautiful Brown Muslim faces, this is the face of Britain now.” It was like spontaneous applause.
Sanjit: Like, “Yeah! Yeah!”
Rita: We were like, “Whoa!” You feel like, sometimes people want to do it, but they just don’t. And that night, they did and we were all high as kites when they did.
Andrew: [jokingly] Especially because I went back and I said, “See, this white face…” [Everybody laughs] Nah, I didn’t say … I didn’t say that.
Angel: ‘Cause in the end, we’re still a bunch of grown-ups who come here for very little money and put on costumes and accents and tell a story.
Purva: To tell an important story.
Sanjit: For me, it’s more than that; I’m doing this story because I feel like it hits a zeitgeist in the moment. It addresses a moment in our country and our politics, and where we are, and so for me this is more than just a job and just a play and coming and putting my costume on, because it’s personal to me. When we have those arguments on stage, I’m not—
Angel: It’s personal to all of us though.
Sanjit: No I know, I’m talking specifically—I’m not saying it’s not just a costume though for me. And so…
Angel: It’s not just for me either. I’m saying that in the end, what [Michelle is] talking about is what happens outside of the walls.
Sanjit: Right. But I just wanted to say it’s not just a costume for me, and not just coming to a job. It means way more than that, and it’s even more exhausting sometimes after you go through something like this, and then you go outside the walls, and be like, “Oh wow! What I did didn’t necessarily change anything outside!” But sometimes, it does. And meeting those people who do come back in the moment who say, “I saw myself on stage. Thank you. Thank you for showing my story on stage.”
Angel: Do you know what was really … I’ll just go on record of saying, “Yes,” to all of that too. I’m not saying that’s all of it is.
Sanjit: I didn’t say it was, I just wanted to make sure that we got that point across.
Angel: But then, I don’t know if we didn’t talk about this in the dressing room. But then, I get exhausted because I read in the newspaper just the other day in London where the hate mail that—you probably saw this—the hate mail going to Muslims out in the community, in Bradford… Every time I say Bradford now [on stage], since I’ve read that article, all I can think of are all the Muslims in that community getting those hate letters.
Rita: Well, this morning, I circulated an email to everyone an article from the Guardian newspaper, [Michelle] you probably saw it? Two women in New York City—
Michelle: Oh, yes. Uh huh—
Rita: Right here, are suing the New York City Police Department for insisting that in a precinct, they take off their hijabs. Completely unnecessarily, and they’re being sued. And I thought, “Yes, this is a play that I’m in and hallelujah.” Or “Ay Allah,” whichever you prefer.
Angel: That’s what’s exhausting. That’s what’s exhausting.
Michelle: But I would say that you are putting the energy out there by doing this eight times a week, and you are … Since we’ve seen the show, I’ve been thinking about it.
Rita: Yeah, good.
Michelle: Every day.
Angel: Wow, cool.
Sanjit: And I think there are people who come … There are always people there in the lobby after the show, the people who really are moved by it, they stay, they talk to us about it. And that’s what keeps me going, on the days where I’m so exhausted, I’m like, “Oh my god. Can I get through this?” But I think about the person who’s going to be outside afterward, looking at all of us and saying, “Thank you for the story, I needed to hear this.”
Purva: Particularly the brown people.
Sanjit: Especially the people who see themselves onstage. But across the board also. It’s incredible.
Andrew: Their thanks have been specific. That’s the thing. Specific about a moment or two moments in the play. And that’s been really eye-opening.
Angel: And people of all stripes are just like, “This play is so important. Everyone needs to see this play, because of this stuff you’re talking about.” That is really gratifying. All ages.
Rita: And they’re diverse, I don’t know if you know, but the diversity of the audience that’s been brought to the workshop for this play, you know, on record, probably the most diverse they’ve had. If you’re serious about expanding your audience base, you gotta do something real about it, there’s no alternative.
Andrew: That’s why we’re flyering in the East Village during St. Patrick’s day. For tonight’s production.
Michelle: Alright, let’s tap out. It’s half hour.
Andrew: All right.
Sanjit: Thank you!
Angel: Thank you for this.
Purva: Thank you so much.
Rita: This was just what we need!
Michelle: This was so great, thank you all.