“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.)
A father and son pair of clerics, Imran (Harsh Nayyar) and Hamza (Sathya Sridharan), feel extraneous to this core family story. They coax and tempt family members toward religion and observance; when Hamza offers Saima a moment of marital infidelity, she grows ever more committed to her faith. At one point, Javeria criticizes Azeem when he blames the religious authority — the Jamaat, an Islamic council or assembly — for causing such stress between their parents. Here, Chaudry crafts a trenchant line: “The problem is not the Jamaat, the problem is this family.” Indeed.
Near the end of the play, Azeem and Akeel discuss whether things have changed for the immigrant citizens of Britain. The older Akeel, for example, recalls never receiving a promotion. “You work in an office,” he tells his Azeem, a banker. “Not on buses or stalls like I did. You haven’t had to work three jobs at once. You haven’t worked with your hands. You don’t know the sacrifices.” To this, however, Azeem pushes back: “Before we were hated for the color of our skin, now we’re hated because of the color of our skin and our religion. Great job, that. Is that what we call progress?” What Akeel does not know is that Azeem has lost his banking job — and now he works as a waiter. History, in other words, rhymes.
The world outside the family is also explored over pints in the neighborhood pub, between Azeem and his Anglo work pal, David (Andrew Hovelson). The good feelings fade, however, amid thoughtless language. Azeem reached his white-collar position through education and a bit of a chip on his shoulder; we can see why casual racism infuriates him. “I don’t want to be tolerated, I want to be respected,” he demands. Still, David wonders why Azeem has issues with their boss — until Azeem points out that the overt expression of his Muslim faith is what caused their rift. David’s Christian-centric response is jarring:
“You hide it pretty well, people assume you’re just an ordinary Muslim.”
Lap Chi Chu’s lighting and especially Neil Patel’s graceful set marvelously frames this small yet sprawling story, with an upstage opening shifting from home entry hall to garage door, then to the pub when a bar and stools slide in.
In the end, each “ordinary Muslim” in the play discovers that assimilation, should they wish it, requires a journey — of the parents to each other; of Saima to her faith; of Azeem to his self-respect. What happens in those travels is nothing less than extraordinary.