September 7, 2004

PUBLIC LIVES: An Actor's Craft and His Faith Intersect


ASIF Mandvi's first lesson on the racism that can come with living in a community where you are different should have prepared him for his second. As a small Indian-born schoolboy in the working-class town of Bradford, England, he was often taunted and chased home from school by "the white boys." The experience, fading over time, rushed back to him after the attacks of 9/11, which produced a backlash that made him, as a Muslim, again feel the sting of being "an outsider."

"It can make you have contempt for your own race, your otherness," he said of his school days while seated at a diner on West End Avenue in Manhattan. "You try even harder to fit in. You aspire to be integrated." But Mr. Mandvi, an actor, has reacted to what he sees as the current assault on Islam - born of indiscriminate fear and suspicion - by identifying with those who are attacked rather than those who are doing the attacking. And his work has, he said, suddenly taken on a political dimension it lacked in the past. He is in the play "Guantanamo," in which he portrays a Muslim detainee, Moazzam Begg, held in the prison base in Cuba for two years.

"This is the most important theater production I have ever been involved with," he said. "I am playing the role of a man who lives in the very situation the play describes. He has not seen daylight in two years. He has no idea why he is detained. I am his mouthpiece through the play. This is not something that could happen. It is currently happening." The play, part theater, part agitprop, is a withering assault on the Bush administration's treatment of the Muslim detainees, drawing on letters, interviews with those few who have been released and family members. Before appearing in "Guantanamo," Mr. Mandvi starred in a production of "Homebody/Kabul," the play by Tony Kushner that looks at America's relationship with the Muslim world in Afghanistan. The role of an activist did not come naturally to a man who says he is not devout and never thought much about his religion.

"I never heard the word 'jihad' until it came out of the mouth of an American television reporter," he said, "and I was raised Muslim. I was never interested in being a political artist, but all this has forced me to become a more political artist. And it has made me a better artist. There is such a misunderstanding of Muslims now, such strange misconceptions, such as the idea that Muslims hate America because of our freedoms. I want to do work that is honest, work that allows people to see another dimension of life."

To that end, Mr. Mandvi, who says he is in his 30's, is turning his one-man show, "Sakina's Restaurant," for which he won an Obie Award, into a film. "Sakina's Restaurant" is a comedy that chronicles life in a family-owned Indian restaurant, which in the movie will be set in Jackson Heights, Queens. "I think it is possible to portray Muslims without having to set them against the backdrop of a post-9/11 world," he said. "This is the story of an American family that happens to be Muslim."

Mr. Mandvi, seated on the fire escape of his small studio apartment in Manhattan, looks at the scene below him. New York, for him, is where he feels most at home, a city he says fuses cultures and traditions, that because of its polyglot population permits a remarkable and refreshing tolerance. HE began acting early, playing a pixie dressed in a stocking in a play in elementary school and going on to star in numerous school productions. He found he had a talent for making people laugh. He joined a local children's theater and got it to produce plays he wrote. When he was a freshman in high school his father, who ran an import/export business, decided to leave England for Florida. Mr. Mandvi, who had been attending what he regarded as an oppressive British boarding school, suddenly found himself in a public high school in Tampa, Fla.

"I came from this cold, conservative, all-boys boarding school to a liberal Florida high school where we could drive to Burger King for lunch," he said. Mr. Mandvi dove into the high school theater program, doing plays such as "M*A*S*H" and "Up the Down Staircase," productions that his British boarding school would never have considered. He earned a theater scholarship to the University of South Florida, although he left before graduation to work as a comic at Disney-MGM Studios.

"I was a street performer," he said. "It was an amazing training ground. I found my comic voice and my comic timing there." It was from there that he came to New York, working as a waiter as he made casting calls and landed parts on the New York stage. "Sakina's Restaurant," a play that he wrote in 1998, helped him land the lead role in Ismail Merchant's "The Mystic Masseur." More recently, he played the role of the pizza store owner who fires Peter Parker in "Spider-Man 2."

But his experience in "Guantanamo" has altered his thoughts on the role and reach of theater, and personal responsibility. The cast of "Guantanamo," in fact, has debated whether to write to the detainees portrayed in the play, something some fear could place them in trouble with Homeland Security. "We have not decided what to do," Mr. Mandvi said, "but I want to give them some hope, to let them know there are people telling their story in New York."