Interview with Ayesha Siddiqui, Pakistani-American Playwright and Actor
by Theresa Christine
Ayesha Siddiqui was trapped. It would be one thing if she had to spend this time stuck indoors with just her live-in boyfriend, waiting out the thrashing winds and rains of Hurricane Sandy. But her father just arrived to her tiny Brooklyn apartment, too, visiting from his home of Pakistan for the first time in years. While she didn’t realize it at the time, the next seventy-two hours would change the way the three of them view each other and themselves. What’s more is, nearly six years after the incident, she would write her experience into the one-act play to explore the issues of culture, love, and belonging.
“I’ve been wanting to write something that explored privilege, race, and familial obligation for a while, but I didn’t want the play to be just about that,” explained the Los Angeles-based actor and playwright. After realizing her experience during Hurricane Sandy was the perfect situation for a one-act, she began writing “Baba, Jee (Father, Yes)” last year. The show premieres this Monday, June 4th at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. “This was the perfect opportunity to write a play that touched on those topical ideas but was rooted in something else—our desire to belong and be accepted.”
I want to start with the entertainment industry in general and being in Los Angeles. It’s a competitive place to work as an actor or a writer even before you take race or gender into account. So what's the biggest challenge you've encountered being a biracial woman in the entertainment industry?
As an actor, what's really difficult about being biracial is no one knows how to place you. I've been told before I look too ethnic to play a white role, and I've been told I don't look ethnic enough to play like a role meant for a South Asian. People don't understand necessarily that people who are biracial can look a lot of different ways. They might not have predominantly one side or the other, so sometimes that's a bit of a drag.
As a writer, what can be a little bit tricky is there's not a roadmap for how to tell these types of stories because everyone's experience is really, really different. I'm interested in taking an honest look at these cultures and not really letting anyone get off the hook.
But it's sort of a difficult thing because even when I was writing Baba, Jee I felt like, “Am I Pakistani enough to even be writing this?” I wondered if I was being disingenuous because I never really belonged to one side or the other. We want to look at people and box them in, like, “This is where you're from and this is what can write about.” But usually what your experiences are when you're biracial are that you have this strange point-of-view and can see outside of that box a little bit.
I want to talk about Pakistani culture, because that is such a big part of Baba, Jee. What are some aspects of it which you have experienced and have brought into the play?
My play brings up a lot that is really crucial and essential to South Asian culture. The way they look at family especially—family is absolutely everything there. Even if you get married later in life, you live with your family until you get married. If you're a woman, you move in with your husband’s family after marriage a lot of the time, and it's hopeful you're close to your mother-in-law and such.
In Baba, Jee, my dad comes to stay with me and a lot of people wonder why he wouldn’t just stay in a hotel. And I talk about that in the play—South Asian people don't stay in hotels. We just don’t do that. We only stay with family because it's rude and cold and weird to stay in a hotel. Family is where the warmth is, and who cares if you're sleeping on the couch or the floor? That makes it fun.
One of the reasons you decided to write this play is because you wanted to tell a story people hadn’t heard before. So what does Baba, Jee tell differently?
A lot of the plays about South Asians are often them grappling with their faith and identity in American culture, or it's them grappling with being a terrorist suspect. It's important those conversations are had, but there are many more interesting things to talk about because we are full human beings, too, with all sorts of complications. We need to write plays that examine things like family issues or abuse, because that's universal.
It's reflective of the zeitgeists of what it is to be a modern Muslim American. While Islam is a part of Pakistani culture, everyone is Muslim to a varying degree. It’s just like how Christians are Christians to a varying degree in America, for those who are Christian. I really wanted to write something where it was a South Asian character, but the play actually has nothing to do with religion—it’s more like someone who just gets to exist as a complicated human. They are struggling with issues that all people have, like being estranged from their children, alcoholism, being unable to belong, and having issues but not knowing how to talk about them. I'm hoping that the more characters we write for South Asians that are actually people dealing with real complex human issues, then maybe that will open up some dialogue.
You mentioned the play explores issues of privilege, race, and familial obligation. How do you include these themes in the play?
Everyone in the play has a different type of privilege and it was important for me to examine each one, because no one is really a winning character in the show. So Maria, the main character, has had struggles in her life, but just being born in America was an automatic privilege given to her. Her boyfriend is white and there's a lot of privilege there as a result. He's a good guy, but again, he doesn't fully understand her background or try to.
He and Baba make a lot of time demands of Maria, and that's part of male privilege—this obligation and demand of a female's time. I think that's something men all over the world share. They want women's time and intimacy and attention and physical affection and don't always give something in return.
It also examines being biracial and how you don't really fit in one way or the other. And with Baba, he's obviously experienced some degree of racism and has never felt like he fits in in America.
In regards to familial obligation, it's there at the start of the play. Maria is cleaning her apartment furiously, getting ready for Baba to enter, and her boyfriend doesn't understand why the father has to stay with them in the first place. He thinks most normal parents aren’t going to stay with you and your boyfriend in a shitty New York apartment. But it’s that kind of thing where Maria knows that that would be the rudest thing in the world and kind of heartbreaking to ask her dad to stay at a hotel. You take care of each other and you do things for one another because you love each other—it’s a sense of obligation which is very culturally felt in Pakistan.
I’d like to go back to the father character. What was the process casting Baba, and how did you find this actor?
My director found the perfect person for me immediately. Ayman Samman plays the father; he's from Egypt and he's been a comedian and actor in Chicago and Los Angeles for a long time. I didn't care too much if the actor playing Baba was Pakistani or not because there simply aren't enough roles for people who are Arab or South Asian in general. I decided, basically, if he can look the part I'm okay with it because he'll already have the experience of what it is to grow up with a darker skin tone in America.
I want you to love the character of Baba—that was really important to me. I also wanted him to be handsome. We often see the portly South Asian dad in movies, which is great because a lot of South Asian dads look like that, but mine doesn’t. My dad is really handsome still and quite charming, and always has been. That's something that's never really portrayed.
This is your first time producing a show in Los Angeles. What problems have you encountered along the way?
The biggest challenge is trying to explain what the hell the show is about to people because, again, they haven't seen anything like this before. But for me it's hard. People like the setting and the scene a lot—small apartment, trapped inside, dad, hurricane—and they think that's crazy. That's what it's about and what happens, but Baba, Jee is a lot more complicated than just the premise.
A lot of people in Fringe will describe their shows like, “You know, it's like Die Hard meets Iron Man,” or something like that. So I almost found a way to explain it to people—I said it's like The Big Sick meets Twister. But everyone said not to explain it like that to people. I mean, The Big Sick meets Twister? if I say that people are going to be like, “What the hell is that?”
For the people who come to Fringe, what do you think is going to be particularly surprising for them when they see Baba, Jee?
The audience will be surprised at how much more they have in common these characters than they’d initially think, and by who actually reaches some degree of intimacy and level of understanding by the end of the show. They may believe they know somebody and how they'll connect, and then they’ll be a little taken aback by who’s actually able to have a real human conversation in the end.
Who are some people who inspire you and are paving the way for non-white performers and writers?
Martina Majok is a playwright. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her play that just opened the Lincoln Center in New York. When I saw her play Ironbound, I realized there was someone who's starting to pave the way of what I'm trying to do, too. She writes these really unique American experiences that are rooted in what it is to be an immigrant, but they're raw and dirty and gritty and, again, no one gets off the hook. I truly admire her.
Kumail Nanjiani is another one. He [wrote and starred in] The Big Sick, and he’s hysterical. He and his wife are doing some really cool things, too.
Oh, I love Riz Ahmed. He’s another Pakistani, and I just love that he's so outspoken and has a side for everything. And on top of that, he is this insane actor and a really hot rapper, too. He’s in this group called Swet Shop Boys with Heems [from Das Racist], and it’s great because it's an Indian and Pakistani together making this hilarious, amazing hip hop that pokes fun at South Asian culture. But it's also a big love letter back to it, too.
To me, this is what it is to be really modern. I see that amongst my South Asian friends and also my Arab friends—everyone is sort of redefining what it is to like be be your culture, but in America. I just love that we're seeing everybody is a little bit different. I think that’s really cool.
What’s in store for you in the future?
I'm hoping to stage like a full length play next. Everything I write to some extent deals with some sort of alternative American experience other than what we typically see on stage. That's where my passion is, as opposed to like writing a play that attempts to grapple with modern Muslim identity—because I'm not even Muslim, so why would I do that?
My hope and dream is to get some more of my plays onstage and continue working as a playwright, and also acting in plays I write or other good productions people are putting on. But I think that's kind of the big lesson in Los Angeles: if you want to see something happen, you've got to do it yourself.