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An Ordinary Muslim

Theatre Review by David Hurst - February 26, 2018

Purva Bedi, Rita Wolf, Ranjit Chowdhry and Sanjit De Silva
Photo by Suzi Sadler

Fresh off an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University, Hammaad Chaudry is making his professional debut with An Ordinary Muslim, an uneven drama at New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW). Set in West London in 2011 following the Arab Spring and the death of Osama bin Laden, Chaudry's play tells the story of a young professional couple navigating the difficult divide between British society and their Pakistani heritage. It's exciting to see a new play centering on the Pakistani community and Chaudry's writing shows promise. An Ordinary Muslim, which was his MFA thesis, has been given a solid production with an excellent cast and has a savvy director in Jo Bonney. However, there are problems with An Ordinary Muslim and as much as one wants to be supportive of a new minority voice in the theatre, it's important to apply the same rigor and criticism to Chaudry's work as to any other playwright.

The married couple at the center of An Ordinary Muslim is Azeem Bhatti (Sanjit De Silva) and his wife, Saima Khan (Purva Bedi). Both Azeem and Saima were born in London but both complain of workplace prejudice despite the fact both of them are up for promotions at their separate jobs. As the play opens, Azeem's sister Javeria (Angel Desai) has arrived at the family home having agreed to take their father Akeel (Ranjit Chowdhry) to stay with her family for several weeks as a cooling off period following a domestic fight between Akeel and his wife, Malika (Rita Wolf). It seems Akeel has a history of familial abuse and has struck Malika again after a long period of détente. Azeem tells Javeria he stopped drinking six months ago. Javeria, who has two children – a boy and a girl – doesn't visit much and we quickly learn the reason is an estranged relationship with her mother and a wildly dysfunctional family dynamic in general.

Saima arrives home and discusses with Javeria and Azeem her desire to start wearing a hijab in the office. A hijab is a veil worn by some Muslim women in the presence of anyone outside of their immediate family and usually covers the head and chest. Azeem tells her it's a bad idea and will just make any Islamophobia at her job worse, but Javeria encourages her to follow her heart and wear a hijab. Malika comes downstairs and Akeel arrives home. It seems their recent argument was about Akeel going with his brother Imran Jameel (Harsh Nayyar) on a 40-day retreat to his hometown in India with the Tablighi Jamaat (a religious revival movement). Imran's son, Hamza (Sathya Sridharan), now runs their local mosque where Saima is volunteering on a benefit. Akeel says he's given his word to go but Malika forbids his involvement with the Jamaat.

Azeem meets his office mate, David Adkins (Andrew Hovelson), at a pub to ask him to write a letter of reference for his promotion request. David reminds him the letter really needs to be written by his supervisor, Richard. But Azeem hates Richard because he's a bigot and makes racist remarks to Azeem disguised as office banter. David finally agrees to write the letter despite the fact he runs the risk of getting in trouble himself for not following the proper procedures. Back home as Akeel prepares to leave with Javeria, Azeem tells his father he's gotten the promotion but the family's dysfunction explodes in a physical scuffle that leaves Malika on the floor as act one concludes.

It's 40-days later when act two begins and Akeel is back home after his retreat with the Jamaat which Azeem sent him on after Javeria refused to take him. Azeem and Saima's relationship is deteriorating. She tells him she wants to quite her job and he implores her to stop wearing the hijab and remain employed. What she doesn't know is that not only did Azeem quit his job but also he didn't get the promotion either so he's secretly working as a waiter at an Indian restaurant in Woking. He meets with David again in the pub to see if he can salvage anything but ends up drinking again before delivering a political screed about the endemic racism he faces as a Pakistani despite having been born and raised in London. Saima, meanwhile, takes refuge in the mosque with Hamza where it dawns on the audience that perhaps her interest in her Muslim identity and wearing the hijab is directly tied to a romantic interest in Hamza. Azeem arrives to pick her up and an ugly altercation ensues between Azeem and Hamza.

Act three finds Saima and Malika conspiring to get Azeem to go on a 3-day weekend with Saima to Leeds with the Jamaat in order to save their marriage. They've invited Imran and Hamza to their home to convince him to go but the conversation turns ugly quickly with Azeem asking them to leave. Hamza reveals Azeem is working as a waiter in Wolking and the family quickly disintegrates into arguments, recriminations and anger as Azeem's lies are exposed. Saima tells Azeem she deserves better and takes off her wedding ring, but not before revealing that she kissed Hamza at the mosque. The play concludes with Azeem telling Javeria he's going to leave and not return. After a touching scene with his father, he departs and the play ends.

If this seems like an enormous amount of plot, it is. I've encapsulated it here to make the point that An Ordinary Muslim is overwritten and, at 2 ? hours, overlong. The problem with Chaudry's script is his unbelievable premise that, after having lived in London all their lives and having dealt with the inherent racism in being Pakistani, both Azeem and Saima seem surprised that racism exists now that they're working professionals. More unbelievable than Azeem sabotaging his interview for his promotion is Saima's surprise at how she's treated when she starts wearing a hijab in her office. Both incidents are pivotal to the play's plotting but they're both contrived. These people would never have the level of naivety Chaudry assigns them here simply for the wheels of his plot to keep turning.

Worse still is the ridiculous political diatribe Chaudry goes on in the second pub scene where Azeem all but accuses David of causing all his problems. He speaks to David with a vicious cruelty that's shocking and, again, unbelievable. David would have walked out on him after a few minutes as much of the audience wanted to do. It's worth mentioning no less a playwright than Tony Kushner served as Chaudry's thesis adviser at Columbia and has been instrumental in shepherding An Ordinary Muslim thru multiple readings at NYTW. If it doesn't have Kushner's fingerprints on it, the second pub scene certainly bears Kushner's ideological influence.

If the acting weren't so good it would be tempting to compare An Ordinary Muslim to a soap opera—As the Hijab Turns? Chaudry is talented but I'm not sure what he wants audiences to walk away from An Ordinary Muslim thinking or feeling and that's a problem. Does he want us to know there's no such thing as an ordinary Muslim? Check. Does he want us to understand the problems Pakistani's face simply by virtue of their race? Check. Does he want us to realize Muslim's struggle with the assimilation of their faith with contemporary culture? Check. The problem is we know all of this. And while it's interesting to watch a scenario we've seen before played out for us by Pakistani Muslims instead of African-Americans or Asians or dimwitted white people from Jersey, Chaudry isn't really saying anything new or fresh in his play.

An Ordinary Muslim
Through March 25
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
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