Born in B’luru, ‘A Muslim in the Midst’ makes USA waves

All set for city debut

A playwright offers a car ride to a family of strangers stranded on the sidewalk off Church Street. That late-night trip inspires a script which morphs into a play, making waves in New York City! ‘A Muslim in the Midst’ now returns to Bengaluru with an edgy Kannada-Hindi twist.

Dramatised, that ‘quiet and uneventful’ episode took a mammoth leap of meaning. Inside the confines of a car, juxtaposing an urbane, erudite couple with a traditional, orthodox Muslim family unleashed a flood of theatrical possibilities.

That is exactly what happened. A strong proponent of inclusivity and multi-culturalism in performing arts, playwright Anand Rao’s presentation of the episode in short story format impressed New York’s Artistic New Direction and development directors of repute.

The script emerged as a 90-minute play after staged readings before the Big Apple’s stalwarts. The first high struck when ‘A Muslim in the Midst’ was nominated for the best play / musical award at the 2016 Thespis Summerfest.

“It was an amazing opening. The entire team received a standing ovation. Housefull shows followed, tickets were oversold,” recalls Rao, revving up for an August 2 Bengaluru debut under Rachana Prasad’s direction.

Rave reviews in the American media had its impact: The play was chosen as India’s entry for the coveted International Voices Project 2018 at the Instituto Cervantes, Chicago. The annual fest had the play compete with the best from Spain, Serbia, Poland, Syria, Finland, Canada and Germany.

So what clicked? Despite the title’s Islamic reference, Rao hastens to stress its neutral stance. “It is neither pro or anti. But it throws up questions on media narratives that affect the society. Some divisions have to be accepted as part of existence. It is about acceptance, not tolerance.”

Questioning one’s own biases, reconsidering prejudices, the play does draw such conclusions, articulated by American audiences. But the responses had much to do with the play’s placement in a time capsule embedded in every American psyche: the 9/11 terror attack.

Three days after the attack, poor Muslims Haneef Pasha and his pregnant wife Shabana were stranded late in the night in Bengaluru. Desperate to reach a relative’s place in a distant suburb, they plead in vain with every passing rickshaw. Watching their restlessness, Raj and Priya, both executives of American companies, take pity and offers a ride.

Conversation in the car quickly takes an unexpected turn. Fueled by a pro and anti-Islamic rhetoric, the characters fight within their self-imposed confines of prejudice and fear.

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