For many like me, theater is more often a voyeurist’s sport: peering in on other people’s lives, rarely expecting to see your own reflection, whether because it’s brown, queer, or just not wearing tights and tap shoes.
So catching such a glimpse in two new productions bowing off-Broadway this winter almost came as a shock in the dark.
Flight, a disarmingly intimate immersive experience from Scottish touring company Vox Motus, currently running at The Heath at the McKittrick Hotel, follows two Afghan refugee boys on a harrowing journey across Europe.
Downtown at New York Theatre Workshop, Hammaad Chaudry makes his professional playwriting debut with An Ordinary Muslim, opening tonight (Monday), which finds two generations of a Pakistani Muslim family grappling with their sense of belonging in London.
While playwrights from Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill to David Henry Hwang and Mfoniso Udofia have wrestled with the sprawl of immigrant experience, stories about the South Asian diaspora have been scarce on New York stages. (No, Aladdin doesn’t count.)
As refugees continue to stream across Europe, Brexit fast approaches, and the U.S. no longer declares itself a “nation of immigrants,” the urgency of all such stories has grown immensely, as has audience hunger to grapple with these overwhelming dilemmas, both global and personal, through art.
Immigration is never as simple as going from A to B. For some, the journey itself is nearly impossible; and the concept of arrival is too concrete by half.
“What do you take with you when you know you are never coming home?” It’s a question that echoes through every stage of migrancy, and the one that Flight begins by asking over each visitor’s set of headphones.
Seated around what Vox Motus co-artistic director Candice Edmunds calls “a carousel of diorama,” viewers are cordoned off solo to witness the story as it rotates past, with different rooms in the 3-D storybook illuminating in time to the narration as it moves.
“We were trying to find a way of making the form so engaging that the story could perhaps be seen in a new light or be rediscovered in a new way,” Edmunds tells The Daily Beast over the phone from London. Vox Motus will be represented on Broadway this season with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, for which it conjures the illusions.
The intimacy of Flight is a large part of its power. Sitting alone in the dark examining the mini figurines as they scrolled past, I didn’t wonder whether other visitors recognized themselves in these little brown faces.
The fact that I did, even though my family originates from neighboring India, and I was the first generation born in America with no need to chase after freedom, forced me to think personally about fate and fortune in a way I’ve never experienced in live theatre.
“I think there’s something about being allowed to go into your own imaginative headspace,” Edmunds says, adding that the fragility of this miniature world also matches the precariousness of the characters’ lives. “We’ve created an atmosphere where it’s hard to avert your eyes, and therefore your attention and your emotional engagement,” she says.
As massive as our global refugee crisis continues to be, it’s so often buried under our daily onslaught of fresh terrible news. “Even in the U.K., it’s so easy to not see it,” Edmunds says. “It’s very easy to see the headlines, but as far as physically seeing the plight of people...It’s still really an invisible problem.”
The hardships that the brothers face on their passage—xenophobia, exploitation, abuse—are so overt, they can be made viscerally clear in still, crafted scenes, without even the embodiment of actors (whose voices are woven into the audio narrative).
While Flight traces a journey whose stakes are writ large, An Ordinary Muslim upends the very idea that there’s a final destination at all. Do a first or second generation whose roots remain halfway across the world ever feel that they’ve arrived somewhere they truly consider home? The question remains, what have they brought with them and what’s been left behind?
“I don’t have a history, I don’t have a heritage, I don’t even know who I am.” The despairing sentiment comes from Chaudry’s protagonist Azeem (Sanjit De Silva), among the first generation of his family born in London, along with his older sister Javeria (Angel Desai).
Their father’s family was upended by the partition of India when it won independence from Britain in 1947; being Muslim they were forced to relocate over the border to Pakistan. (My father’s family was similarly displaced, though, being Hindu, in the opposite direction.) For the Bhattis, that original dislocation reverberates through the generations, further coloring Azeem’s essential crisis of belonging.
“This idea of homelessness, migration, these things that seem disconnected as you’re growing up… narrative, to me, connects them to find some meaning,” Chaudry, who was born in Edinburgh to Pakistani immigrant parents, tells me.
Many in the South Asian diaspora may instantly recognize some of the threads Chaudry weaves together in the play—feeling too Indian (or Pakistani, or Muslim) to Western eyes, but not enough in your family’s, thoroughly assimilated one minute and totally out of place another, the pressure, above all else, to make good on an immense (and often costly) opportunity.
Azeem’s tendency to feel the weight of historical injustice as though it were a personal attack may seem shoehorned into the drama as political commentary, but it’s a feeling that resonated with me, particularly living in America right now (the London-based play is set in 2011).
Chaudry also wrestles with respectability politics as it relates to practicing Islam, visibly, while trying to climb the professional ladder in a country prejudiced—and waging war—against Muslims.
When his wife Saima (Purva Bedi) decides to start wearing a headscarf to work, Azeem tells her, “You’re smarter than that... They’ll never accept you.” In a similar such moment, Azeem’s father (Ranjit Chowdhry) tells his son to wear a tie on the first day of his promotion. He doesn’t, but it’s Azeem’s inflated expectations of his own success that get him into trouble.
“My hope is really if anything that people leave more uncertain about their certainties,” Chaudry says of the play, which is directed by Jo Bonney and for which Tony Kushner (whose Angels in America revival is currently in previews on Broadway) served as Chaudry’s mentor.
While for myself and others, seeing reflections of our experience mounted on major stages may be a refreshing rarity, if not a first, most Western audiences may bring little or no personal context to shows like Flight or An Ordinary Muslim.
“Intellectual humility always allows for a more honest discussion,” Chaudry says of his hope that audiences leave with more questions about their assumptions than easy answers. “You’re not on the margins anymore,” Chaudry says of having a play like this produced by the same off-Broadway company where Rent first began. “You’re saying our narrative, our faces, our stories—they’re the mainstream.”
“People like me are not going to change for anyone,” Azeem tells a friend and colleague in the play. “I don’t want to be tolerated. I want to be respected.” It’s a conviction anyone and everyone can relate to—which is precisely the point.