Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
It turns out I’m Asian-American.
I know! I’m just as surprised as you are!
A little background on this revelation, and I’ve spoken about this before here and there so apologies for repeating myself. Over the course of my thirty years of existence, I have managed–consciously, unconsciously, or some combination of the two–to make my ethnicity a secondary characteristic, an afterthought in my third-party descriptions. In high school, a few of my friends remarked that I had essentially become my own adjective. I wasn’t “that Indian/Pakistani kid,” or “that theatre kid,” or any such label other than “Bilal.”
“You’re just…Bilal,” I was told.
Last year, on a paintball excursion in which I would be participating with a few people I’d never met before, my friend Cubby described me to a friend of his who was looking for us in the parking lot as, if I recall correctly, a shorter bald man with a beard. The fact that I have skin the color of a basic Starbucks beverage, which would in fact have made finding me that much easier, simply didn’t enter the category of Identifying Marks.
I’m not unhappy, really, with this situation. I feel that the issue of race, like that of sexual orientation, will only stop being a problem in America when people stop looking at it as the easiest and most prominent characteristic of a person. I would let out tiny shouts of jubilation when an interracial couple appeared onscreen without ever once having to deal with the “issue” of their inter-race love; I would let out slightly louder groans of agony when I would see commercials for episodes where a lesbian kiss was used as a viewer magnet.
So if most people don’t immediately think of me in terms of my race or ethnicity, but rather in terms of my personality and actions, then I feel I’ve scored a little victory on the path to a more compassionate, tolerant humanity. I’m only one pebble in the well, to be sure, but I can find some happiness in that.
It’s not that I avoid the issue of my ethnicity entirely, of course. I’ve written a number of Too Much Light plays dealing very specifically with my ethnic and cultural background, and I recognize that I have that voice, unique within our ensemble, to share. As a matter of fact, I will be performing a few of these short works in Minneapolis this June as part of the 2008 National Asian American Theater Conference alongside Regie Cabico and F. Omar Telan, alumni of the New York Neo-Futurists. I’m not in the business of active denial. I know I’m of Pakistani and Indian descent. I know that this means something; now perhaps more than ever before in my life.
All that said, I had something of an identity crisis a few weeks ago.
I have been, of late, rehearsing A Passage to India with Vitalist Theatre, opening April 10 at the Theatre Building, based on the classic novel by E.M. Forster (also famous for Howards End). I am, as you would expect, playing a number of the native Indians, most often the Indian Muslim attorney Mahmoud Ali. It is in fact the first time I have played an Indian of any kind onstage–barring, obviously, the act of playing myself in TML–as I have been cast most often as Hispanic, Black, or race-neutral (as in The Permanent Way, when everybody was playing so many characters that issues of gender and race took a back seat to being true to the story and people in question; which is why it wasn’t necessarily jarring when I appeared, late in the play, as the only Scotsman with anything to say).
My Indian/Pakistani castmates in Passage are all most recently late of Silk Road Theatre’s critically acclaimed production of Merchant On Venice; all of them are incredibly talented, which is intimidating in and of itself, but what sucker-punched me into the identity crisis was their innate connections with their ethnicity. All of us are being required to play native Indians during the time of the British Raj, but with the first two rehearsals it became very clear to me that I was the one who was really going to have to work at it. I was going to have to research the linguistics, was going to have to sit down and obsess over the dialects of Roshan Seth and Amrish Puri in Gandhi. Whereas my colleagues brought their authenticity to the table, I have had to go back and manufacture mine.
I was called in to audition, of course, because I’m an actor of ethnic Indian persuasion. I am not, however, I realized, an ethnic Indian actor. I’m actually an American actor who isn’t likely to be cast as an American.
And I felt a deep sense of sorrow as I analyzed what it is you lose when you manage to assimilate.
I’m back from that, now. The rehearsal process has given me an opportunity to fill in the gaps of my experience as well as remind me that there is much I do still retain in my psyche even if I don’t often use it. My dialect is coming along slowly but surely and I no longer have cold sweats about performing four shows a week as the most glaring example of miscasting seen in ages.
I’ve been asked before by friends and colleagues about my ethnic and cultural heritage in terms of how it connects to my artistic life. My friend Sara, a playwright herself, asked me pointedly about the likelihood that I might be more successful if I wrote more often about stories related to that ethnic background.
I can’t deny that there are playwrights and novelists of Arab or Asian-Indian descent who write often and write well about issues related directly to their background, and I can’t deny that I’m currently living in a time where American audiences are suddenly very hungry for stories about that strange and faraway culture that occasionally spawns evil murderous thugs bent on the destruction of the Great Satan West.
But I also can’t deny that these stories aren’t really bubbling to my surface. I can’t change the course of my inspiration so easily. In my mind and my heart there are no compelling narratives about the Muslim family dealing with the generational divide; there are no stories of the terrorist with a sudden change of heart.
Right now I want to tell stories of blinded Russian architects, of inventors driven mad by their inventions, of ancient mythological concepts unleashed and exploited by the modern world, of a middle-class rural family in downstate Illinois inching closer to permanent damage and oblivion, of the otherwise-forgotten story of Isaac Newton’s nemesis. These are the stories that found me, and I cannot ignore their desire for an author simply because I might be more successful trying to tell stories that other writers are far more qualified and skilled to impart.
I may one day get there. It may be too late by that point. That may happen.
At that time, I may have to be “Asian-American writer Bilal Dardai.”
At that time, I may feel a deep sense of sorrow as I analyze what it means to become particular.