- OnStage Associate Connecticut Critic
From the moon landing to JFK’s assignation, each generation has one defining international event that is forever burned in their memory. For those in my age range, that landmark moment happened on September 11th, 2001. Almost anyone now in their mid-twenties can distinctly remember where they were when the towers fell and the newfound feelings of mature terror, uncertainty and existential doubt it forced them to think about. It’s no surprise, then, that many of the best playwrights of the 21st century have used 9/11 as a springboard for works like Neil LaBute’s “Mercy Seat,” Richard Nelson’s “Sweet and Sad,” Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” and even the current Broadway musical “Come From Away.”
Anand Rao’s “A Muslim In The Midst” is perhaps the newest addition to that list. It premiered at a 2016 theater festival and has since been touring colleges and theaters in staged readings and one-night-only showings. On September 8th, the show was presented at a small Yale University theater for students and Yale affiliates, which is the production I attended.
It’s a smart move for Rao to align his play with academia rather than shopping it around to regional theaters as the best part of “Muslim” is the post-show discussion it will surely spark. As a conversation starter, “Muslim” has a lot to offer. As a piece of theater, it’s clunky, underdeveloped and more than a little derivative. According to his bio, Rao is also an actor, director, journalist, college professor and management consultant. While he clearly shows some talent and the tenacity to delve into dark and sticky territories, it won’t surprise many audience members that “Muslim” is only his second work as playwright.
The set-up is fresh and engaging, especially since we rarely see a work about September 11th from an international perspective. Set in Bangalore, India three days after the terrorist attacks, this 90-minute one-act unfolds in real time as Raj picks up his wife Priya from work late Friday night. Although born-and-bred Hindu Indians, Raj and Priya both work for American companies (their US satellite offices were in the Twin Towers) and live an exceedingly Western, agnostic life. Before they can head home, Raj spots an impoverished Muslim couple, Haneef and Shabana, who are being ignored by the waiting rickshaw drivers. Under ordinary circumstances, the heavily-accented and rurally attired couple would be out of place in a city referred to as the Silicon Valley of India, but with the new-found threat of violence, they are all but walking examples of the fundamentalist, uneducated Muslims that breed terrorism. Feeling bad for Haneef and his pregnant wife, Raj decides to give them a ride to their new residence in a low-income housing unit a few miles down the road.
Like “Gods Of Carnage” before it, “Muslim” spends the rest of its running time engaging in a back-and-forth conversation between the two couples. They discuss the Quran and Islamic ideals, terrorism, religious freedom and passionately debate gender equality and sexual politics. For the hijab-clad, dutifully quiet Shabana, a life outside subservient domesticity is unthinkable, a stark contrast to the high-powered and childless Priya.
The topics Rao brings up are timely and well argued, but often come across as talking points rather than natural dialogue. Yes, the same could be said for Akhtar’s brilliant “Disgraced,” a work that covers somewhat similar ground, but that play has the benefit of finely drawn, deeply complicated characters and firecracker dialogue. Watching “Muslim” I kept waiting for a moment like Amir’s insightful and shocking “blush of pride” speech to give these stock characters a newfound depth and ambiguity. It never came. What did follow in “Muslim” was a hurried and stale ending that featured a character reciting a laughably clichéd aphorism with thoughtful earnestness.
It’s a shame, really. “A Muslim In The Midst” has a lot to offer for contemporary audiences and its message, if occasionally trite, is nevertheless important. But if Rao wants his work to be fully effective, some rewrites are necessary. He needs to invest less in political posturing and more in character development, ditch the hoary expositional radio broadcast and work on creating a more suspenseful and realistic character arc for our two couples.
In the production I attended, simply staged by Rao and featuring a quartet of professional actors, the cast were occasionally able to give their characters complexity beyond what was on the page. Ram Kanneganti brought a ragged charm and deep-seated intelligence to the pastoral Haneef while Dipti Mehta beautifully combined Priya’s prickly strength and vulnerable core.
“A Muslim In the Midst” is the kind of play I root for and the writing of this review is not to wail on a new playwright. Anyone who uses the art form of theater to talk about important, misunderstood issues deserves praise and Rao’s heart is unequivocally in the right place. As his dramaturgical skills grow, I hope he keeps delivering works that inform as well as entertain. But as it stands, this is one unique instance where the post-show talk-back (and the ensuing conversation on the drive home) might be more memorable than the show itself.
To find future productions or to bring “A Muslim In The Midst” to your school, visit: https://www.amusliminthemidst.com