REVIEWS: Exploring Immigrant Experiences in “An Ordinary Muslim” and “queens”
Two new plays that opened Off-Broadway recently document finer points of the immigrant experience—in the United Kingdom and the United States. Both are long-winded but well-acted, and offer important, thought-provoking, and memorable perspectives that buck common perception, making for rewarding theatre.
“An Ordinary Muslim” (New York Theatre Workshop): in first-time playwright Hammaad Chaudry’s play, protagonist Azeem Bhatti (Sanjit De Silva) is a first generation Pakistani West Londoner playfully described by his older sister, Javerai (Angel Desai), as a “coconut” (brown on the outside, white on the inside). Angling for a promotion to manager of the bank branch where he works, but fearful of his bigoted boss, Azeem expounds that “a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim”, even as his wife, Saima (Purva Bedi), who is also up for a promotion, debates beginning to wear a hijab to work and asking for prayer space.
As the story unfolds against the backdrop of a history of silenced domestic violence between Azeem’s immigrant parents, he becomes a man in crisis, exhausted by a lifetime of behavioral code-switching and self-conscious self-explanation—alternatively too Muslim and not Muslim enough, straddling his Pakistani personal life and English public life, and feeling at home in neither place. His reactionary cry for assimilation and distancing from religious traditions contradict his charge that the views of a more traditional friend, Hamza (Sathya Sridharan), are not radical enough, while admitting to a white colleague, David (Andrew Hovelson), that he finds liberal tolerance worse than outright bigotry and even quietly celebrates when terrorists kill British citizens, viewing the violence as justified revenge for colonization.
Despite the raging zig-zag of Azeem’s points of view, “An Ordinary Muslim”, under the direction of Jo Bonney, manages to illustrate a painful reality that many first generation people of color and practitioners of Islam face, both in the United Kingdom and the United States: the sense of being perpetually othered in your own country and the attendant mental trauma associated with being a targeted minority in a post-9/11 world. In embracing her faith and ethnicity, Samia finds there is “nothing more freeing than being yourself publicly”, even if, as Azeem learns, it comes with a cost. The play, an inaugural effort for its Scottish writer, establishes its themes well but is ultimately clouded with too much to say, too many focal points, and too many relationships to mine; a shorter play with fewer characters and a tighter plot or a longer play that delves deeper into the established characters and plot would service the material better. Opened February 26th; Extended to March 25th at New York Theatre Workshop. Discount Tickets.
“queens” (Lincoln Center Theater): many Americans suffer from a bizarre amnesia about the fact that we are, and always have been, a nation of immigrants. The song “No Irish Need Apply”, circa 1860, demonstrates just how deeply anti-immigrant sentiment runs throughout our history. In “queens”, a thoroughly absorbing new play by Polish-American playwright Martyna Majok that marks the latest entry in Lincoln Center Theater’s wonderful LCT3 program, the evolution and psychology of how an immigrant can come to hold anti-immigrant views is viscerally put into focus, alongside a glaring display of the reality of immigrant sacrifice and struggle. America may have always been a nation of immigrants, but it’s never been easy.
Primarily taking place in an illegal basement apartment in Queens that is the passing home for dozens of immigrant women over the course of 16 years (2001-2017), this striking new work—clocking in at nearly three hours—is simultaneously hilarious, gut-wrenching, and chilling. Following an explosive opening, the expertly crafted first act, under a perfectly claustrophobic low-ceilinged set by Laura Jellinek, introduces a quartet of women late one night in the fall of 2001, exhausted from a day’s work at menial, low paying jobs. Pelagiya (Jessica Love) from Belarus and Aamani (Nadine Malouf) from Afghanistan are throwing a “party” for Isabela (Nicole Villamil), who is returning to her native Honduras; the quiet Renia (Ana Reeder), who has just arrived from Ukraine, will take Isabela’s place. Over the course of their conversation, we fall in love with these women, their sheer strength, and their remarkable if not always apparent support for one another. While Renia’s story continues unfolding, the other women disappear abruptly, reflecting the transient nature of life for poor immigrants. Acts two and three jump time and location to reveal Renia’s path, and that of a young Polish immigrant named Inna (Sarah Tolan-Mee)—both steeped in mystery while searching for family forever severed by the act of migration.
Stories of immigrants in the United States are often ones of great triumph and success or terrible defeat and pain. “queens” tells a different, more complicated tale of tradeoffs: how life goes on for those left behind and how the decision to emigrate shapes the totality of an immigrant’s remaining life, offering freedom and opportunity but also regret and disconnection. Pelagiya quips early on that “progress means to forget”, a line Renia parrots 16 years later. Forgetting may be necessary for moving forward, but too much forgetting can also be destructive.
Under the direction of Danya Taymor, “queens” proves itself to be a vital new work from a potent new voice. In a rushed and forced ending to a play that could go on forever, the all-female cast of characters pleads to Renia—and to the audience—“do not erase us”. It is as powerful and important a moment in the theatre as any I’ve ever encountered. Opened March 5th; runs through March 25th at Lincoln Center Theatre’s Claire Tow Theatre. All tickets $30