Creating Theater With Tazeen Zahida — FannBoy Friday

"The most important thing as a creative person is finding people who are willing to protect the sanctity, the originality of your idea. Not anyone and everyone can understand minute hints about cultural context [or the] religious sense that is inherent in our writing."

Creating Theater With Tazeen Zahida — FannBoy Friday
Presenting all original English and Urdu plays, Tazeen Zahida's Tee Zee Productions is the only artist collective of its kind.

FannBoy Friday is a weekly column from Shahjehan Khan that highlights American Muslim creatives.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, Tazeen Zahida writes plays in English and Urdu. Her plays are inspired by current affairs, social issues, family dynamics and her experiences of living in the Middle East and America. She spearheads Houston’s only South Asian theater company, Tee Zee Productions. Through her work, Tazeen intends to bring to life hard-to-tell and harder-to-sell stories. She is a literary translator and critic. She believes that poetry is the ultimate form of expression. Zahida’s new theatrical work “And The Clay Pot Speaketh” retells a South Asian folktale about the love story of Sohni and Mahiwal from Punjab. The tragic romance will be told through musical pantomime with narration, supported by South Asian poetry and folk music (via Tee Zee Productions' website).

Rifelion CEO Asad Butt came upon Tazeen’s work during his never-ending quest for exciting content created by American Muslims, and that’s how Tazeen’s play "And The Clay Pot Speaketh" ended up in our slack channel. I was hooked right away, and reached out to her via website, and the rest is below! 

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Shahjehan: How has 2023 been for you and your company?

Tazeen: We were commissioned by Performing Arts Houston to perform an original adaptation of Sohini Mahiwal's story from Punjab. I think that was the highest point for my company and [the] people who are working with me.

Very recently, we got done with our original play "Forget Me Not," [which was] written about the challenges of Alzheimer's and dementia and memory loss. I feel it is a story of every [South Asian] household.

For the rest of the year I [have been] commissioned by Performing Arts Houston to do a comparative study of [John] Keats and Majaz [Lakhnawi]. I chose this subject because it is very close to my heart. Not being an academic, I have my own way of looking at things, which may be interesting for people.

Shahjehan: What about Houston lends itself to the kind of work that TZP does?.

Tazeen: I was raised in Saudi Arabia, and for the last six years since I've been in Houston, I consider myself ... extraordinarily lucky to have found … the best people I could wish for in terms of their intellectual caliber. [They’re] generally genuine people who not only tell their own stories [but] who are willing to listen to my stories as well. I think Houston is primarily defined by the spirit of those people who believe in the goodness of humanity.

Shahjehan: Can you tell me about a meaningful first for you, like a moment where you felt like ‘wow, I’m really doing this?’

Tazeen: I have been creating theater [since I was] back in Saudi. My show [about Kashmir] was the bestselling show in Jeddah. I used to write comedies in those days when I was a student. I continued doing small shows for fundraisers, writing skits and directing them. And when I came to Houston, one of my friends suggested that [I] should do this [full time] because now is [my] chance to actually do something that [I’m] so passionate about.

The first show that I did was called “Rearranged Marriage,” an Urdu comedy [that] had over 350 people in the audience … Educated, progressive, like-minded people came to watch something originally made. That was the turning point in my life and it gave me a lot of courage to continue doing what I wanted to do as a storyteller.

Shahjehan: What's something that you think that you do really well as a creative person and how did you develop that skill?

Tazeen: I still consider myself primarily a writer. My forte is playwriting. The most important thing as a creative person is finding people who are willing to protect the sanctity, the originality of your idea. Not anyone and everyone can understand minute hints about cultural context [or the] religious sense that is inherent in our writing. 

I'm delighted to say that I have actually found someone who has a great sense of direction. Danish Farooqui has worked on Broadway, but I actually got to know him when he assistant directed my play. I have found my tribe, and so this last play is really close to my heart because of all these reasons. It has  brought me out of this seclusion that I had been going through. Now I have these people who are willing to work with me and take chances. When you find a team, when you make an actual cast and crew of artisans and actors who are willing to take chances with you, then it becomes the actual team sport theater is. 

Shahjehan: Who are your inspirations?

Tazeen: I'm a bilingual writer (Urdu and English). [One of my inspirations is], of course, Anwar Maqsood as a playwright … I know all his scripts by heart. [There’s also] Mohsin Hamid as a creator of original work. Of course I'm inspired by Shakespeare, Shaw and Oscar Wilde because these are the people I grew up reading. Just last night I watched a play by Chekhov.

On a level of storytelling, I'm greatly inspired by Bapsi Sidhwa. I have had the good fortune of knowing her personally and getting her advice on some of my scripts. I would be taking a liberty if I [called] her a mentor, because I met her at that time of her life [when] she was very close to memory loss and she was struggling with her health issues. I consider myself very lucky that she was one of the people who advised me very profoundly on the strengths and weaknesses of my script. And although she is a novelist — she's not a playwright [which] she made very clear when she read the first draft of "Relax Mrs. Khan," my first post-pandemic English play —she was very honest, and honesty is one thing you seek as a beginner in this realm. And that is so sadly scarce in our community. People love us and love our work because they love us. It is difficult to detach an artist's work from an artist. I find it very challenging to find people who would admire my work and not me. Who would be in the hall buying a ticket because they would like to know the story that I'm about to tell, not that they love me; [they’ve] just come to watch me say something. 


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