It was a packed audience at the Minetta Lane Theater, an intimate off-Broadway house in Greenwich Village in New York. The lights had been dimmed, and everyone was waiting for the show to begin. Suddenly, a man with a suitcase strutted up the aisle, wide-eyed and with an innocent, open smile, waving to the audience. He was Azgi, an immigrant restaurant worker from India, on his way to America, the Land of Dreams.
Over the next 90 minutes, Azgi would alternately transform into a multitude of characters – restaurant owner Hakim, his wife Farida, their daughter Sakina and son Samir, as well as Sakina’s fiancé, Ali. All the transformation needed was a scarf, or a pair of glasses, or just a hairband. And so adept was Indian-American actor Aasif Mandvi at this character manipulation that there was never the sense that the stage was being held by one man: instead what could be heard was a cacophony of voices, of individuals, each with their own dreams, fears and aspirations.
Azgi’s journey is at the centre of Mandvi’s one-man off-Broadway show Sakina’s Restaurant, which opened in mid-October – 20 years after it was first seen in New York. Originally directed and developed by Kimberly Hughes, this testimony to the immigrant life had gone on to win critical acclaim, including two citations from the Obie award committee. Donald Trump’s America is very different to the one which shiny-eyed Azgi made home. Why did Mandvi think this story is still important at a time when the words immigrant and Muslim are hated?
“Now we have a very aggressive assault on immigrants and Muslims and it feels like one of the ways that you dehumanise people is by politicising them,” said Mandvi. “Sakina’s Restaurant for me was always a human story, a nonpolitical story, because it’s counter to what’s going on in our culture right now, where we want to dehumanise immigrants.”
Mandvi was a young struggling actor in America when he had first written and performed Sakina’s Restaurant. A lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. He went on to become the hugely popular correspondent on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show – that gig lasted for a decade and got him fame and recognition. He acted in several movies and TV series, including in Today’s Special with Madhur Jaffrey, wrote No Land’s Man, a fun autobiography, and performed in many plays, including Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. He was also the lead actor, co-writer and producer of the web series Halal in the Family, which won a Peabody Award. In 2017, Mandvi, a long-time bachelor, actually managed to build marriage into his plans, tying the knot with his girlfriend Shaifali Puri. Now the 52-year-old is back on the stage with Azgi’s tale, directed by Kimberly Senior and presented by audiobook publisher and retailer Audible.
It’s a sad commentary on today’s times in that this tale still needs to be told – and yet it is optimistic and hopeful. Sakina’s Restaurant is still set in the 1990s, so there are no references to 9/11, Muslim travel bans or the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Mandvi’s is a more innocent America where racism does exist, but all the veils have not yet been lifted from the ugliness of its deep-set xenophobia. It’s a happier place where immigrants are still harbouring their wishful American dreams – the hopelessness has not yet set in.
Azgi, the waiter, is still an innocent and thrilled with the concept of America. There’s a lot of folklorish wisdom in his words as he sometimes talks directly to the audience, philosophising about his immigrant life: “Every night I have the same dream. I am a giant tandoori chicken wearing an Armani suit. I am sitting behind the wheel of a speeding Cadillac. I have no eyes to see, no mouth to speak, and I don’t know where I am going.”
As one American viewer confided to me at the end of the show, when she first saw the blissful Azgi rushing into America, she felt like warning him, “No, no. Don’t do it. Don’t come here.”
The entire play takes place in a small Indian restaurant on East Sixth Street in New York, with the mandatory string of garish multicolour lights and makeshift décor. Through six very different characters Mandvi weaves a tale of immigrants in America in general, and Muslims in particular. Hakim is caught between the lost and the new and negotiating between the two. Anyone who has moved to a new place will recognise Farida’s grief at leaving the sweetness of home for the loneliness of a cold, friendless America. While Sakina tries to straddle two different worlds – the America of her friends and the India of her parents’ memory – Ali, her Muslim fiancé, is conflicted between the attraction of America’s wanton lifestyle and the demands of his faith. And Azgi struggles to find – with humour – his footing in this slippery new world. Each character faces the conflicts of being immigrant and Muslim in America.
“I never thought that 20 years later the story I wrote about an immigrant family would be an act of political resistance against an administration that is at war with immigrants,” wrote Mandvi in an Instagram post. Political resistance, he believes, comes through such human stories.
“This is what artists and storytellers do – we tell stories,” he said. “This is the way we counter a political agenda or totalitarian government that puts babies in cages at the border or bans Muslims from the country. The way you counter that is by writing a song or telling a story. This is what artists have been doing for generations. You can’t help but experience it through the lens of today’s culture. I can tell this story again and it has a resonance today in some ways much deeper and more nuanced than it did back then.”
Islamophobia, Mandvi says, is being used as “a way to scapegoat immigrants”. “Trump’s entire platform is basically looking at his base and blaming immigrants, terrorists and jihadists for all of America’s problems,” he said. “It’s very easy to be like, ‘oh, the jihadis are coming. They’re trying to kill and to destroy our way of life.’ So Islamophobia is a tool that’s used by people who are in power and want to divide and create smokescreens. That’s how racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism all work.”
During his stint at The Daily Show, Mandvi got a chance to “work with some of the funniest people in the business and so it helped me hone my skills and sharpen my comedy as a skill”. It was five years after 9/11 and it gave him a chance to examine his identity as an immigrant and Muslim, and gave him a platform to talk about these issues to a national audience. Now the fans from the show have followed him to Sakina’s Restaurant, which brings him back to his roots, for he is more of a storyteller and a performer at heart than a traditional comedian.
While Sakina’s Restaurant is a big success in liberal New York, it perhaps needs to be shown in conservative red states as well. Mandvi says he would like to make a documentary of taking it to different parts of America to see how it would play out. Currently Audible is doing an audiobook version of it, and in the future, there may be a live streaming version of it.
Sakina’s Restaurant has moved many people from different walks of life, cutting across ethnicities and gender. A young Indian girl, recalled Mandvi, came up to him after the show and said: “I just want to say thank you for helping me understand my father a little better.”
Indeed, the play has changed things for young Indian-Americans actors. As a drama student, Mandvi never saw himself reflected in any of the plays that were written by white men. So it’s always satisfying for him when a young actor comes up and tells him: “I used your monologues from Sakina’s Restaurant to get into graduate school.”
“I think everybody needs to see themselves reflected in the world around them,” said Mandvi. “Especially young children growing up – it kind of legitimises them in their own mind when they see people like themselves on the screen.”
The immigrant’s search for identity and place continues to intrigue Mandvi. As he muses in Sakina’s Restaurant in the voice of Azgi, part-time philosopher and full-time immigrant: “Once upon a time a man asked God for a new face because he was tired of the one he had, so God granted the man his wish. The tragedy of this story is that now every time the man looks in the mirror, he doesn’t know who he is.”
Sakina’s Restaurant, written by and starring Aasif Mandvi, is playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre, New York, until November 11.
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several publications and blogs at Lassi with Lavina. She tweets @lavinamelwani.