By Anand Rao
Directed by Kim T. Sharp
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
In Anand Rao’s new play “A Muslim in the midst,” an affluent Hindu couple, both executives of American companies in Bangalore – the Silicon Valley of India, come across a poor Muslim couple seeking a ride three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks bring down the Twin Towers in New York City. After sorting out their concerns about inviting strangers into their vehicle, Raj Sunder (played with a tempered confidence by Ram Kanneganti) and his wife Priya (played with a steely but vulnerable core by Nikita Tewani) decide to invite the couple into their car, opening an ideological dialogue that reveals their primal fears and prejudices about Muslims in their midst. It is the frightening and surprisingly universality of these misconceptions and xenophobia that are the guts of this morally ambiguous play that is part of the Summerfest Theater Festival at the Hudson Guild Theatre.
Haneef Pasha (played with a fetching ambiguous disposition by Gopal Divan) and his pregnant wife Shabana (played with an inquisitive tenderness by Deeksha Ketkar) are a poor Muslim couple trying to get a ride to Heneef’s uncle’s home where a construction job awaits him. Two rickshaw drivers (Jorge Torres and David Lopez) refuse to give the couple a ride ostensibly because they cannot understand Haneef but also because of their prejudices toward Muslims. After they load their luggage into the trunk of Raj’s car – Haneef noticeably paying particular attention to one of the bags – the Pashas and the Sunders move from polite conversations to somewhat more heated debates about Islamic Terrorism, American Supremacy, feminism, modern medicine, and male chauvinism. The premise to this intense drama is inspired by real events, Playwright Anand Rao experienced when he worked as a journalist in Bangalore.
Anand shared that the play “is a reflection of the times we live in and the increasing need for discovering a common fellowship based on humanity and empathy. It focuses on the need for an ongoing debate that transcends cultures and borders.” And Gopal shared on Facebook that “A Muslim in the midst” is a show about those who bear witness, about how honest we can be with our assumptions, opinions and perceptions we have. Can you handle your own truth?”
In the attempt to publish an unconventional review, this reviewer would like each actor – and the playwright and director – to respond to this multi-part question: “What is it your character bears witness to? Do you feel that your character was completely transparent about his/her assumptions, opinions, and perceptions about the other characters? Is your character able to handle his/her own truth? Finally, what did you as an actor learn about your own preconceived ideas relevant to the playwright’s important themes?” Here are the responses:
Gopal Divan (Haneef Pasha): Following the performance, one audience member mentioned that he would like Haneef to have been written more likeable which is fair; another audience member said Haneef is the only character they could relate to, which is also fair. Ultimately this tells me more about how we all would like to change the world around us to fit our framework and anything we don’t like we either want to convert or push away. Haneef to me, is a man that is unchangeable in a world that wants to change him. He accepts those around him and is curious and tries to understand but ultimately is grounded to his roots. The Sunders (the Hindu couple) – more Priya than Raj to an extent – have changed themselves to adapt to their world. Their version of the “survival of the fittest” as opposed to Haneef’s mindset that life is written in Allah’s will that we are not in control. This then becomes a debate about one’s own evolution but primarily we must fundamentally ask the question why we fear those who are unwilling to fit our framework of things? Perhaps the tragedy or affirmation, of the Pashas, and the buttons they push is that which we see in our own conditioning and nature.
Deeksha Ketkar (Shabana Pasha): I think Shabana can understand what other characters are going through in the play. She completely understands and feels for Priya, but Shabana being an over-protected, conservative woman, expresses her thoughts in a very specific, constructed manner as she has learned it from older women of her family. Shabana is very comfortable with her life, she of course wants to move forward with her husband. So for her handling her truth is not a challenge. She has been living her life as truthfully as she can. More than preconceived notions, this play made me reassure myself that forming opinions based on somebody’s appearance can put me in a box and how much I can miss as a human being and limit my knowledge.
Ram Kanneganti (Raj Sunder): I think my character finds himself in a situation where he discovers two individuals that are bound by a completely different set of rules than he is that affect him in ways that he would never have expected and is most transparent when he is vulnerable and that doesn’t happen all the time. Raj has always been aware of who he is. But allowing himself to be seen completely by those around him is difficult. As an actor, I learned that it can be powerful to ask an audience a series of questions by laying out a simple scenario. Questions that lure you into thinking about how society can have ideas or perceptions of how things are. And to reflect on your own view of the World.
Nikita Tewani (Priya Sunder): Priya Sunder, is open-minded, outspoken, hard-working and compassionate. She is not transparent about her assumptions and opinions about the other characters in the beginning of the play. She decides to help the Muslim family without any fear of anything going wrong. Priya makes her “liberal-mindset” very clear as it is a big part of who she is. As the discussion progresses to a point where she feels personally attacked, she reveals some of those assumptions and opinions that she had tucked away. Unfortunately, because of the tragic events she just experienced, those prejudices come to the fore rather quickly. Maybe they wouldn’t have on another day when she wasn’t bogged down by work stress, and tragedy in her second home – New York. As time progresses, Priya feels like she can really help these people and change their minds. Her intentions are good, even though she may come off to others as dogmatic. I would say Priya is normally fully aware of her actions. However, in context of the massive loss she is dealing with throughout the course of the play, she is not able to handle her own truth. She is unpredictable to herself. She doesn’t know what will come out of her involuntarily. Priya’s subconscious attempt to control her own thoughts are to focus on this other couple and try to “change them”. She can’t accept the fact that they won’t waver from their beliefs. Eventually, she does come to terms with the fact that we tend to reserve the benefit of the doubt for those familiar to us. From this brilliant play, I learned how important it is to hear a person’s story before you judge them, before you unleash preconceived notions on any group of people based on religion, culture or belief.
Kim T. Sharp (Director): From my perspective as director, this is a story about two couples, who have never met each other, who share a ride one night. During the time they have together, they learn a great deal about each other, about their spouse and about themselves. In these interactions, they betray and fall victim to their own attitudes, backgrounds and prejudices. In varying degrees, they are changed by their experience. Anand has set this ride through the night three days after the 9/11 attacks on the towers of the World Trade Center. It is this extraordinary circumstance that highlights and energizes the actions and behaviors of the four principal characters. Dislocated and affected by this circumstance, the characters are particularly vulnerable and their emotions heightened in varying degrees. As the emergency alerts keep the threats present for the audience and the characters; the danger seems to be coming closer. This threat triggers the instinctual drive for self-protection, and that subverts their actual perceptions of the ‘other,’ the unfamiliar and the foreign. It is trusting our perceptions over our drives, tradition, and teachings which is the challenge for all people, governments and cultures interacting in a time of uncertainty. This is the issue facing the characters and the audience as the lights fade at the final curtain.
“A Muslim in the midst” is a complex play that demands the audience make choices and carefully examine preconceived notions. Playwright Anand Rao has created multilayered believable characters whose authentic and engaging conflicts drive an interesting and thought-provoking plot. His text is rich and dense and demands careful reading and listening. The questions the script raises are enduring and significant.
Of his play, Anand Rao shares, “it treads that tight rope of neutrality, where no side is taken. Is Haneef a sincere and religious simpleton, or is he a conniving liar? Is Shabana the innocent housewife or a partner in Haneef’s devious plans? That’s a question left to the audience. A resolution is perceived depending on where the audience member is in terms of his/her belief and understanding. The last thing I wanted this play to become was a mouthpiece for someone’s belief, regardless of its rationality or not. I wanted this to be a dilemma, an argument that runs in people’s minds over and over again, long after the play ends.” See one of the two remaining performances of this intriguing play and join the discussion.