[article as originally published in The Clyde Fitch Report, February 27, 2018.]
“The problem is not the Jamaat,” one character declares. “The problem is this family.”
“We’ve lost, Dad. There’s nothing for us here.” Words of apparent surrender become, in the hands of playwright Hammaad Chaudry in An Ordinary Muslim, a look back to immigration battles won and lost, and a look ahead to battles of assimilation.
Running at New York Theatre Workshop through March 25, Chaudry’s play still may be evolving: I noticed that the main character’s name in the script that was distributed to critics differs from the one in the printed program. Still, the words spoken by Azeem (resolute and unraveling Sanjit De Silva) to his father, Akeel (gentle and truculent Ranjit Chowdhry), speaks to the effect of this eight-character tale of religious beliefs and family resentments, not to mention relations between India, Pakistan and Great Britain, in West London in 2011. If there are too many stories attempting to be told here, there is much to admire in this fresh take on familiar themes, from family violence to marital compromise, all directed with elegance by Jo Bonney.
How the Bhatti family resolved its struggle to immigrate and to assimilate feels universal to us. Yet, watching the play, you realize that the cultural world of this particular play is one that we don’t hear enough about, for Akeel migrated to England when the post-World War II partition of India transformed his family land into Pakistani territory.
Years later, the Bhattis now confront a new crisis, one that reaches across the generations. Azeem and his married sister, Javeria (chilling and funny Angel Desai), meet at the home of their parents in order to intervene: Akeel, who stopped beating their mother, Malika (firm and sweet Rita Wolf), when she developed a heart condition, is starting up again. Why? Because Akeel wishes to return to Pakistan for a religious trip and she doesn’t want to go. So Javeria arrives to take their father, with whom she is closer, to her home to cool off. Azeem, meantime, has personal and work tensions rising in his life.
Assimilation is a core theme of An Ordinary Muslim. It’s introduced in the first scene by the playful but potent name-calling between siblings. Azeem calls her “freshy,” likening her to a new immigrant, while Javeria calls him “coconut”: brown on the outside, white on the inside. The wearing of hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf, offers another echo of this theme. For Malika, it’s a symbol of her faith; for Javeria, it’s fine to wear a combination of jeans and hijab; for Azeem’s wife, Saima (Purva Bedi), the question is how to grapple with wearing hijab in a secular office environment. (Susan Hilferty’s costumes are layered and lovely.)