Playwright Rehana Lew Mirza: ”How do you define ‘Too many Asian Americans?’” — FannBoy Friday

Playwright Rehana Lew Mirza: ”How do you define ‘Too many Asian Americans?’” — FannBoy Friday

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

Rehana Lew Mirza is a playwright, filmmaker and the founder of the award-winning Desipina and Co., a South Asian film and theater company. Rehana’s plays include “Hatefuck,”  “A People’s Guide to History in the Time of Here and Now,” “Soldier X,” “Tomorrow, Inshallah,” “Neighborhood Watch” and “Barriers.” She has won various awards with her husband Mike Lew, including a Mellon Foundation National Playwright residency. She founded Desipina & Co alongside her sister Rohi Mirza Pandya in 2001, where together they produced the popular “Seven.11” series (seven, 11-minute plays all set in a convenience store). Her 2005 short film “Modern Day Arranged Marriage” also won the NBC ShortCuts audience award  and her feature film “Hiding Divya” had a limited North American release and toured to colleges through a grant from the Asian Women’s Giving Circle (adapted from https://www.rehanamirza.com/about.html).

It’s always been a certain demographic running the theaters and a certain demographic that they were serving. And now that they’re struggling, suddenly they’re like, “Let’s diversify. Let’s pass the baton.

My previous guest Arti Ishak mentioned Rehana’s show “Hatefuck” that Arti was directing in Chicago, and when I Googled her, it turned out I had known of her many years ago. Our paths most certainly would have crossed during my early years getting to know the creative space in New York City. I really enjoyed this interview and hope to catch one of her productions really soon.

(Rehana’s interview has been edited for length and clarity.)


Shahjehan: What are you most excited about for 2023?

Rehana: It’s hard because there’s a writer’s strike right now, so that’s foremost on my mind. But I work in theater as well, so I’ve been working on a musical for the past seven or eight years based on a screenplay I had written based off of my basement bhangra years. We are casting out of Birmingham and doing a workshop in the fall of the dance, which I’m super excited about.

Shahjehan: That sounds awesome. This is a different question: When did you first feel empowered as a storyteller? Whether that’s the first time as a kid you figured out this is what you wanted to do, or whatever that question might mean to you.

Rehana: It’s funny because as an artist, sometimes it feels like nothing is within your power. You’re always reliant on a producer coming along or investors or theaters deciding to do your play. There’s so many different elements that have to come together for a project to actually be put up — I won’t even say successful, because you can work so hard to get something up and at some point you’re not happy with it, or the audience isn’t happy with it and you’re happy with it. So there’s so many factors at play, but for me, I actually felt very empowered early on in my career when I decided to start putting up my own work through Desipina which is a company I founded with my sister Rohi Mirza Pandya, who is more the business-minded end of things. We started with small plays and [we’ve since been able to] work with people I respected and admired [which] really gave me a sense of power, of putting things in my own hands and getting to make my own choices.

Shahjehan: Because you’ve been doing this since the term post 9/11 was invented, when did you feel comfortable to be your full self and not have to hide in stuff that people liked?

Rehana: You know what’s funny is that I probably am the opposite of most people. I came out screaming and then over time realized, “Oh, people don’t wanna hear [this]. That’s very uncomfortable for people. That hurts their ears.” And so actually my journey over time has been figuring out the perfect combination of entertaining and political. And that’s been where I find my sweet spot. 

So “Hatefuck” had its world premiere here in New York with Sendhil Ramamurthy and Kavi Ladnier, both of whom are actors I’ve known for a very long time. It was so great to get to finally work with him for the very first time. But that play in particular, I was thinking to myself, “How do I talk about South Asian, Muslim American identity politics in a way that traditional theater-going audiences will be able to hear, but also specifically South Asian and Muslim American audiences won’t feel like it’s not for them?” It’s been a very difficult navigation of plays that either cater to traditional theater-going white older patrons or community considered plays that kind of preach to the choir. … I specifically was like, “Oh, if I title this play ‘Hatefuck,’ look at it as a one night stand that turns into a longer relationship, that is a vehicle which I think is entertaining to me, and hopefully it’s universally entertaining while also talking about representation and individual responsibility and how we are seen in media and in popular culture.

Shahjehan: When was a time, maybe the first or maybe a recent time, where you had to take a stand in and be like, “No, I’m gonna do it my way?”

Rehana: The journey [has been] learning how not to be rash and throw out everything, just cause one thing isn’t exactly how you would have imagined or pictured it. A lot of art is about collaboration and usually the first idea is not the right idea, and usually if you’re in a group, nobody’s idea is the right idea. … That’s the journey. … I’ve fought a lot of battles and I [now try to] pick the most important one. It’s not even specific to being South Asians or a woman or any of those things. Sometimes as an artist you just have to pick a battle. … And then also behind the scenes trying to fight for more inclusivity, for example in funding/granting panels for theater, a lot of times [they] had a cap for “ethnic specific theater.” 

Shahjehan: Wow, that’s actually a term?

That’s actually what they called it. I couldn’t even speak. I was sputtering at that point. So at the end of the day [I would say,] “How do you define ‘too many Asian Americans?’” I think sometimes they invited me to the table for diversity not realizing that I also brought in a very distinct point of view, and that I would speak up. 

“How do we just stop having to prove ourselves and always bring in amazing numbers? How do we allow ourselves to sometimes have a soft opening and not have that speak on behalf of an entire ethnicity or race or nationality”

Shahjehan: Where do you see the distinction between the whole representation conversation in theater versus film, and also where has it gone from when you started Desipina to now?

Rehana: I think things have changed [for the better] over the past 20 years. I’m seeing efforts towards, not thinking in terms of those very limiting, marginalizing ways. But I still think there’s a long way to go.In film there’s a better understanding that every piece of art has an audience. You just have to find it. So I do think that there’s starting to be an investment in that in theater as well. I think they’re understanding that they need to find new audiences. 

I think with film there’s so much money at play and it’s very commercial. So the numbers speak there and unfortunately you have to keep proving yourself over and over again. So that to me is a little bit of, “Oh, how do we just stop having to prove ourselves and always bring in amazing numbers? How do we allow ourselves to sometimes have a soft opening and not have that speak on behalf of an entire ethnicity or race or nationality?” So I think that’s where film could use a little bit more in forward-minded thinking. 

In theater, I think it’s hard because it’s struggling right now. Obviously the past three years there are no productions, no live events happening. And I think they need to reimagine their model in a way that it’s not product oriented and [is] more community minded and thinking about where you live and the people that you serve. I also believe that because we’ve been closed up inside for so long we desperately need theater more because we need to have that interaction with one another — that human exchange, that visceral processing of emotions. And I really do believe it’s important. .

even for nonprofit theaters, it’s always been a certain demographic running the theaters and a certain demographic that they were serving. And now that they’re struggling, suddenly they’re like, “Let’s diversify. Let’s pass the baton.”

So for the future of theater, I think they need to figure out how to both get government funding and local support. [Theater has] always been seen as the great White Way. But even for nonprofit theaters, it’s always been a certain demographic running the theaters and a certain demographic that they were serving. And now that they’re struggling, suddenly they’re like, “Let’s diversify. Let’s pass the baton.” And they give a struggling theater or BIPOC artist or administrator power, and it’s like they’re jumping off a sinking ship and being like, “Oh, now this person made it fail.” I’ve been seeing that pattern happen. So I think we need to find out a way to stabilize theater and then empower more artists of color.

Shahjehan: Who are maybe two or three people Muslim/Muslim-ish creatives that have inspired you to do what you do now?

Hasan Minaj is obviously doing a lot of great work. I admire a lot of his work. And then Nida Manzoor who just came out with “Polite Society.” And then obviously Madhur Jaffrey was who was in [my film] “Hiding Divya.” That [was] a dream of mine to get to work with her because she was such a trailblazer in terms of just making space for herself in a hostile environment. And that really inspires me to just keep going, keep moving forward.


Rehana Lew Mirza’s play “Hatefuck” recently had its Chicago premier. You can find Rehana on Twitter @rehanamirza.

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