Edinburgh-born Hammaad Chaudry’s highly promising debut drama, An Ordinary Muslim, written as a master’s thesis at Columbia, where Chaudry was mentored by Tony Kushner, is set in London in 2011, just when the Arab Spring was sprouting. The play, though imperfect, offers a fascinating glimpse of a middle-class Pakistani Muslim family working out their personal issues against the background of their particular socio-religious world. In our divisive times, it’s instructive and helpful to witness the common humanity of people from worlds unfamiliar to most of us as they engage in everyday, profanity-seasoned conversations about what matters most to them.
In An Ordinary Muslim the characters—all but one of Pakistani heritage—talk among themselves about issues of assimilation, immigration, India-Pakistan partition, ethnic and religious prejudice, the wearing of the hijab, and secularism versus fundamentalism, among other things. These subjects are organic outgrowths of the situations and only occasionally become polemical as the characters seek to discover how they fit into modern UK society.
At the action’s center is Azeem Bhatti (Sanjit De Silva), the London-born son of Pakistani immigrants. A suit-wearing, but tieless banker, he lives with his retired father, Akeel (Ranjit Chowdhry), who worked hard at second-rate jobs to make a life for his family after immigrating to England; his imperious mother, Malika (Rita Wolf); and his loving but vaguely dissatisfied wife, Saima (Purva Bedi). We also meet his hijab-wearing sister, Javeria (Angel), resentful of her mother, who lives in Manchester with her husband and two kids.
|Purva Bedi, Rita Wolf, Ranji Chowdhry, Sanjit De Silva. Photo: Suzi Sadler.|
It doesn’t take long to realize how dysfunctional this family is: the relationship of the constantly bickering Malika and Aleek is stained by his history of physical abuse; the pestering Malika, on the other hand, has done the same to Javeria, and shows no compunction about favoring one of her grandchildren (unseen) over the other. Saima contemplates wearing her hijab at work despite the discomfort this causes Azeem, who sees it as potentially provocative. At any rate, Saima’s unhappy at work and would like to quit, while Azeem is angry with everyone and everything.
|Sanjit De Silva. Photo: Suzi Sadler.|
The good-looking, clean-cut, well-educated Azeem resents that the world at large sees him as “an ordinary Muslim” while, in fact, he considers himself pious, although his religious attitudes seem to shift and he’s even got a drinking problem he’s trying to kick. His pride (and sense that he is being slowly emasculated) is such that he refuses to make even minor career-advancing accommodations in the face of what he perceives as anti-Islamic bigotry. He carries such a gigantic chip on his shoulder, especially about the treatment of Muslims, in both the colonial and post-colonial UK, that he can easily lose our sympathy by his constant venting. Even David (Andrew Hovelson), a liberal-minded, if patronizing, friend and colleague from whom he seeks a recommendation, is subject to his outrage.
|Andrew Hovelson, Sanjit De Silva. Photo: Suzi Sadler.|
While Azeem can perhaps be viewed as a potential troublemaker, giving us insights into just how “ordinary Muslims” become radicalized, it’s easy to see, in his relations with his loved ones, just how much he’s to blame for his own fate. This is highlighted when he digs a hole for himself by lying to everyone about having landed the managerial position he was aiming for.
Engrossing as the material often is, the play changes direction too sharply from the politico-cultural to the domestic, becoming a standard family and marital drama filled with the usual interpersonal angst, even including a whiff of infidelity. Without the ethnic context, it would be quite familiar.
In Act Two the play introduces two members of the Bhattis’ Pakistani community who try to enlist Azeem in the Tablighi Jamaat revivalist movement, Hamza (Sathya Sridharan), the youthful, bearded head of the local mosque (who has an eye for Saima), and his father, Imran (Harsh Nayyar), a respected Muslim leader. When the latter two become the targets of the self-righteous Azeem’s vitriol, the playwright may be stretching things too far. Azeem’s toxicity may be dramatically interesting but it doesn’t ring true for someone who’s gotten so far, regardless of his recent job issues.
|Sathya Sridharan, Purva Bedi. Photo: Suzi Sadler.|
Neil Patel’s set uses all of the spacious New York Theatre Workshop’s stage to represent its several locales--a pub and a mosque but chiefly the Bhatti’s tackily wall-papered house—with individualized units sliding on and off to be isolated under Lap Chi Chu’s expert lighting. Susan Hilferty’s costumes expertly display both the modern and traditional elements of what these characters would wear.
|Sanjit De Silva, Ranjit Chowdhry. Photo: Suzi Sadler.|
An exceptional company of actors of South Asian backgrounds brings three-dimensional sincerity to Chaudry’s dialogue, which is ripe with British-accented, colloquial authenticity. Under Jo Bonney’s insightful direction, each actor creates a fully-fleshed out character, with Sanjit De Silva standing out despite Azeem’s various inconsistencies.
|Sanji De Silva. Photo: Suzi Sadler.|
An Ordinary Muslim is structurally uneven and burdened by a questionable conclusion, but it dramatizes important issues and holds one’s interest throughout its two and a half hours. That alone is far from ordinary.
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., NYC
Through March 25
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