Hammaad Chaudry (Royal Court Theatre’s Young Writers Programme Graduate) is making his professional debut with this thick sandwich of a play at NYTW, and he has certainly carved out a multi layered scenario to dig his teeth into. In his hunger and thirst, he might have just bitten off a bit more than he can thoughtfully chew, but for such a big juicy mouthful, An Ordinary Muslim has some delicious flavors to savor, even when they sometimes overwhelm one another. Directed with an exacting eye for detail and humanity by Jo Bonney (MTC’s Cost of Living), the play seeps into a familial crisis similarly to an Arthur Miller drama, but layers on the challenges of integration and assimilation for Muslim immigrants in today’s combative and fear/hate-driven world. As these finely crafted characters speak of “respecting their fear“, they are forced to confront the questions of belonging and the nature of bigotry that is currently raising its ugly head in the England, the U.S., and beyond. The Bhatti family are front and center in this compelling drama as they not only have to confront internal discomforts and conflicts ‘a la Miller’, but also deal with how they and the rest of the world interact with a first generation’s desire to be free, complete, and respected in a world they were born into but not completely embraced.
An Ordinary Muslim begins with a fantastic sister/brother dynamic that feels as real as it can get. The fantastic Angel Desai (Broadway’s Company) is the hijab-wearing married sister, Javeria Bhatti-Mirza, sitting and sparring over coffee with her brother, the suit-wearing bank employee, Azeem Bhatti, played passionately by the handsome Sanjit De Silva (Sarah Burgess‘ Dry Powder). It feels like the most natural of sibling rivalry and pulls us in to their dynamic completely. She has come for a much-needed and overdue visit, and somewhere, because of the writing and all the actors subtle performances, we see in that first scene the whole family’s interpersonal difficulties instantly enacted, triggered, and displayed in full bloom, making for an instinctive connection and curiosity in their story. The father, Akeel, played stoically by Ranjit Chowdhry (TNG’s Rafta, Rafta) is definitely not an easy man for his son to interact with, even as we see Akeem’s internalized love and pride of his father struggle for a home.
At the adult children’s request, the father is being asked, or pressured one might say, to go away with Javeria after physically abusing their mother Malika in a heated argument. She is majestically portrayed by Rita Wolf (Public’s Stuff Happens), sitting regally in composed defiance to her husband and family’s wishes. She doesn’t truly believe the act of violence requires her husband to leave. Her needs seem solid, not pleading nor showing much beyond proud composure, but her children have known and witnessed this kind of behavior before, and believed it had been shelved a long time ago. The topic that was the lighter fluid to this old behavior is of extreme importance to the whole story and is symbolic to the difficulties at heart in this family. It revolves around the very religious and ceremonial Jamaat, which Malika is fully against. A Tablighi Jamaat, a movement that I did not understand, is an assembly to help Muslims, of all social and economic backgrounds, to gain a deeper understanding of Islam. “Tablighi” means “to deliver (the message)” and Malika has forbidden her husband to attend such gatherings. But she is no innocent flower inside this marriage, which we are given access to, and makes this couple all the more compelling. We are privy to her complexities in the way she interacts with her husband and children, especially in the toxic relationship she has manufactured with her daughter, Javeria. It’s an extremely well crafted creation that this family of actors have thoughtful invested in; one that is filled already to the brim with dynamic possibilities.
Their scenes together aches of difficult parent/child dynamics that could really be a part of any family drama, but Chaudry has more that he wants to throw in the pot. He slices and adds layers of conflict that we begin to see as troubling but natural components within any immigrant family who have raised children born in their new-found home, country, and culture. In An Ordinary Muslim, we are presented with Pakistani parents, who were thrown off their Indian land in the 1947’s partitioning of India and Pakistan (the history of that moment in British India, and the separation of two countries: India and Pakistan, is laid out quite compellingly in a program insert), and survived the violence that enflamed the region. 15 million people were displaced with more than a million killed in that hostile relationship between India and Pakistan, a migration disaster that has lasted to this day. But these two strong immigrants lived to tell their tale, and subsequently have born and raised their mostly English-speaking children in England, trying to give them a balanced life somewhere in between the two worlds that inspire and flavor them. Adding onto that complicated piling, the play also attempts to dig through the cultural divides that grow as the children interact more and more with contemporary England and within their own communities, with difficulties rising out of the discrepancies of religious beliefs and faith held to different degrees and personal specifics.
In that framework, we are given Akeem’s wife, Saima Khan, played with loving compassion by Purva Bedi (Tectonic’s Uncommon Sense), a modern woman of intelligence and passion, who is tied up in her own external battle for freedom and real-ness within herself and community. She wants most desperately to find a way to embrace her faith and cultural attunement with the public act of wearIng a hijab not just at home, but also at work. She knows full well that it will most likely attract unwanted negative attention especially in her work environment just as she is being considered for a promotion, but she wants to take the risk. She fantasies what it would feel like to live a life being true and proud of who and what she is. “Nothing is more freeing than being yourself publicly” she states, and that desire is fostered and supported by her sister-in-law, the religious community at the mosque where she spends time volunteering, and most specifically an adoring, if somewhat inappropriate, member of the mosque, Hamza Jameel (Sathya Sridharan) whose father, Imran (Harsh Nayyar) is quite the prominent figure within that very community that Azeem has no desire to be affiliated with.
Akeem, on the other hand, is not supportive of her opening herself and the family to all the negative backlash that may come from her act of religious freedom and expression. He is desperate for her to try her best to avoid these complications at her work life, for reasons more complicated than he first reveals. This solid and somewhat nasty disapproval is in direct conflict with his own personal attempt for inclusion and integration, while a growing rage of discomfort attacks his soul at every turn. This battle for internal stability is most beautifully displayed in the escalating argument that erupts with his work mate, the very liberal and compassionate David Adkins, played to perfection by a strong Andrew Hovelson (Broadway’s The Father). Where we see ourselves in this discussion, and how we would respond, are two of the most compelling questions and concepts that Chaudry is asking us to sit with in discomfort, and it doesn’t sit well (which may be the best compliment one could give this show). No part of this drama is easy to hold or to rectify, and that is where An Ordinary Muslim becomes anything but ordinary.
Beautifully played out on a metaphorically intense set by Neil Patel (RT’s Time and the Conways), with precise lighting by Lap Chi Chu (PR’s The Wolves), telling and multi-dimensional costumes by Susan Hilferty (Broadway’s Present Laughter), and sound design by Elisheba Ittoop (Signature’s And I And Silence), the underlying impact of the Muslim faith is literally lying underneath this family’s every step. The floor separates and we see it there, asking to be acknowledged and investigated in such a real and present dynamic, with all its flavors and forms. One would be hard pressed to explore and dissect this family without each and everyone’s dynamic being addressed but this play tries too hard to be all and everything within these conflicts. “To be a good Muslim, is to be an invisible Muslim“. In that statement we find, in essence, the beauty, power, and depth of An Ordinary Muslim‘s attachment to all the issues and troubles that exist for an immigrant family and it’s first generation offspring. That is also the one negative in this play. Chaudry attempts to discuss it all, with great conflict on every level within this family, , and even though many of these complexities find their target and fill our hunger, too many flavors start to overwhelm our senses, leaving our taste buds confused and ultimately unsatisfied, all alone in a foreign land.