South Asians are beginning to become more prominent figures in the mainstream arts. It isn’t unusual anymore to see our people on television. For example, actors and comics like Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Kunal Nayyar, Hannah Simone, Archie Punjabi, Aziz Ansari, and many others, are part of big projects and household names. Mindy Kaling even managed to create her own show, which has grown in popularity! Even in theater, South Asians are finally beginning to make bigger waves. One such playwright is NYC’s own Rehana Lew Mirza. Her style of writing focuses more on realism. She runs her own theater company, but has also been part of the Ma-Yi Theater Company for a couple years. While there are other South Asians in the company, it is her play, “Soldier X”, that has been selected for production. This makes her the first South-Asian American playwright whose work the company will be showing! Read on for my interview with Rehana, and be sure to check out her play in NYC! Urban Asian readers can get tickets for $25! Use TICKET DISCOUNT CODE- SOLDIERMAIL.
SOLDIER X will run March 24 through April 19 at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue, enter on Dominick Street, one block south of Spring). The play will run Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 pm and Sundays at 4 pm. Tickets are $25 during previews (March 24th date); regularly $30 ($25 for Urban Asian readers using discount code SOLDIERMAIL); seniors and guaranteed student tickets are $15. For reservations log on to www.here.org or call 212 352 3101.
Roopa: How does it feel to be the first South Asian playwright whose work has been produced by the renowned Ma-Yi Theater Company? Do you feel any pressure?
Rehana: I do, because there are quite a few South Asian writers who are also part of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and I don’t want to ruin it for the rest of them! But seriously, I’m honored to be included in the ranks of Ma-Yi produced playwrights. There’s pressure with every production to want it to be a certain way… but that’s also the beauty of live theater. In some ways, you also want it to grow beyond you.
Roopa: You have been working with Ma-Yi for a couple years now. How has the experience been and what have you learned from your journey there?
Rehana: The Ma-Yi Writers Lab is a wonderful incubator for Asian American talent and I’ve really learned that community is so important, and diversity within one’s community pushes you to examine and challenge your own artistic views.
Roopa: Many have called theater a dying art form. What about theater do you find most satisfying (i.e. what drew you to theater?) and why should people continue to support theater? Was your family supportive of your desire to go into theater?
Rehana: There is a live, visceral element to theater that you really can’t get in any other medium. That level of human connection can be electrifying, and when all things come together, a show can become an event and there really is nothing else like it. I also love the process of theater, you get in the trenches with your collaborators, you figure out what works, what doesn’t, and really dig deep into the story. My sister and I founded a theater company together, so I’d say my family is very supportive!
Roopa: Not only are you in theater, but you have also made short films. Which is your preference and what aspects of each do you feel are most challenging, and which come most naturally?
Rehana: Ultimately, I think it comes down to the story you want to tell, and how it can be best told. So, I enjoy doing both theater and film because of the variety it lets me have. Dialogue comes naturally to me in either form, and I love thinking about structure. But I think the hardest is getting your work out there. A production comes so rarely, whether it’s a film production or a theater one. Finding the financial support for projects is incredibly difficult – theaters and studios take so few risks on artists of color, and we all need to have a stake in finding and demanding a new production model if we want to see nuanced and diverse stories on our stages or on the screen.
Roopa: What inspired you to write Soldier X? It seems like a rather interesting and complex storyline.
Rehana: The play’s inspiration originally came from a photo of a Bangladeshi, Muslim-American family mourning their fallen son – a U.S. soldier. But when I began the play in 2012, I realized that we have soldiers of the same war who are of different generations, with different outlooks and different dispositions. I became fascinated with youth who have spent more of their lives at war than at peace. I was drawn to the folly of youth, placed in the context of life or death, and during a time in your life when everything feels like life or death.
Roopa: What projects are you working on for this year? Do you have other plays ready for production?
Rehana: I’m currently adapting a feature film that I wrote called BHANGING IT into a musical for theater with a composer Sam Wilmott and my husband Mike Lew. I’m also working on a commission for InterAct Theater called “Neighborhood Watch,” which is scheduled to have a reading through Ma-Yi in May. But additionally, Mike and I have TV Pilot that was a finalist for the Fox Writers Intensive, and I am trying to finish up a new screenplay. So I tend to work in all storytelling mediums pretty fluidly.
Roopa: What advice would you give to people looking to enter theater?
Rehana: I would say see lots of shows… but I once wrote about thinking about all the advice I’ve gotten during my career, like “produce your own work”, “stay out of debt”, “don’t go to grad school”, “go to grad school”, “be nice”, etc. And I think in the end, the only thing I really followed was my own instincts. So that’s what I’m going with. Trust your gut. And don’t waste time looking back.
Roopa: Do you think you may write any feature films?
Rehana: I’ve written and directed a feature film called HIDING DIVYA, which had a limited theatrical release and also toured to colleges on a grant from the Asian Women Giving Circle. I have a few other feature scripts available to produce, if anyone’s looking!
Roopa: Any other message for our readers?
Rehana: Please come support Soldier X and spread the word if you like it!