South Asian playwright revisits 9/11

Arun Kumar

Washington, Aug 14 (IANS) A Chinese-Pakistani family's loss from the Sep 11, 2001 terror attacks and the backlash they endure is the theme of a play by a South Asian playwright to commemorate the 9/11 tragedy.

'Barriers', a play by Rehana Lew Mirza, daughter of a Pakistani father and Filipina mother, is scheduled to run from Sep 9 through Sep 18 at HERE, known as presenters of daring new hybrid art, in Manhattan in New York with previews beginning Sep 7.

Taking place four months after 9/11, 'Barriers' focusses on how the multi-cultural Abbas family that lost their eldest son Nabhil in the attacks at the World Trade Centre, begins to fragment as Abbas' only daughter comes home to announce her pending engagement to a white man.

Mirza, whose full-length plays include 'The Good Muslim' and 'Particles of Pakistan', says she began writing 'Barriers' shortly after 9/11 'as a way to deal with all that I was feeling' as 'I was horrified' at what she had seen and experienced in the aftermath of the tragedy.

'The first production of this was all raw emotion,' she told IANS. 'Ten years later, I've been revisiting this piece, which is tough because it brings back all of those emotions.'

'It's also tough because in re-examining how much has changed, not nearly enough has. The media's depiction of what constitutes a 'terrorist', to me, is still incredibly biased,' says Mirza.

Recalling the day it happened, she said: 'I remember running home from 68th Street to see if my sister, Rohi, had been called to temp that day downtown or if she was still home. The phone lines weren't working, so my only way to find out was to go home.'

'I remember someone screaming that foreigners did this, and spitting at me. We lived below the 14th Street zone, so for two weeks we stayed home and I didn't go into my job uptown. We were watching the news nearly 24-7, and were depressed by the tragic loss of lives.

'But we were also affected by the media's depictions of South Asians and the subsequent backlash against them. One day I found a flier on my doorstep for a missing South Asian woman, with cigarette holes burned into her eyes and mouth,' said Mirza.

But her play is 'based on no one person in particular, but a collection of stories', she said as she wanted to 'honour the diversity of New York City, and of our country'.

Directed by Colette Robert, the play features a cast that includes Indian-American actors Pooja Kumar (Miss India USA 1995, 'Flavours'), Sunkrish Bala (ABC-TV's 'Notes from the Underbelly') and Rajeev Varma ('1000 Apologies').

The play also celebrates the tenth season of Desipina & Co, a fusion arts company, founded by Mirza, and her sister Rohi Pandya 'to honour cross-cultural heritages' by combining 'Desi' and 'pina', slangs for South Asians and Filipinas.

Originally mounted in 2002 at HERE and then subsequently co-produced with the Asian American Theatre Company in San Francisco and Los Angeles in 2003, 'Barriers' is returning to the stage to look back on the ten-year anniversary of the Sep 11 tragedy.

The two performances on Sep 11 will be 'pay what you can' with part of the proceeds going to support The Neil G. Shastri Foundation, an educational foundation named in honour of a 9/11 victim of South Asian heritage.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at