When Aasif Mandvi debuted his one-man show “Sakina’s Restaurant” at New York’s American Place Theater in 1998, the acting scene was very different. The play — which features Mandvi portraying a series of characters whose world revolves around the Indian eatery of the show’s title — would earn the actor critical acclaim and an Obie Award. It was also praised for its well-rounded look at contemporary Muslim immigrant life.
Mandvi recently announced that he would be returning the show to the stage for a limited run in partnership with Audible, beginning on October 5 at Manhattan’s Minetta Lane Theatre.
Director Kimberly Senior said that when she and Mandvi first began talking about reviving the show, they were both struck by the timeliness of presenting a story about recent immigrants. “We talked about how it’s a piece that was written 20 years ago and how does it feel in the context of how we live now and who we are now and how the world is changed,” said Senior at a press event publicizing the show. Senior and Mandvi first worked together in 2012, when she directed the former “Daily Show” star in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar.
Senior noted she was particularly happy to return to working with Mandvi on a show that was rife with meaning. “There’s a heartbreaking nostalgia to Aasif’s piece, where a family is struggling with real questions of identity,” she noted. “It’s not ‘am I allowed here?’ or ‘do I belong here?’ But the questions of what is the relationship to where I’ve come from?”
We got to sit down with Mandvi to chat about what it is like to return to the show he wrote so long ago, how the current conversation surrounding immigration has influenced the production and how Hollywood and theater has changed in the two decades since he debuted “Sakina’s Restaurant.”
The Teal Mango: I know you are in the middle of rehearsals for the show right now. How is that going?
Aasif Mandvi: Good, I forgot how much work it is, doing a one-man show. I definitely have to pace myself during the day because it’s a lot of work and stepping into the different characters and the emotions of it and being the only person on stage.
I’m excited to announce that I’m bringing my Obie Award winning one man show ‘Sakina’s Restaurant’ back to the NY stage for a limited run with @audible_com at @Minetta_Lane Tkts are available now. https://t.co/MpHYG7Sazu
— aasif mandvi (@aasif) August 20, 2018
TTM: Is this the first time you’ve done the show since 1998?
Mandvi: I did it in ’98 at American Place theater and then I took it around for a couple of years. We did it in London, we did it in LA, we did it in Toronto, we did it in DC, and we did it around the country so since 2000-2001. It’s been 18 years since I’ve done the play, but surprisingly a lot of it has come back to me. A lot of it is in my muscle memory and I was working on the play and I was surprised at how much I still remembered. And there were some parts where I was like “who the hell wrote this, this is very hard to memorize.’
TTM: It sounds like it’s something like seeing a friend for the first time since 2001. You know, when you meet someone again for the first time in a long time and think “Oh, I don’t exactly remember everything about this person.”
Mandvi: It is. These characters are friends of mine. They are people that I have spent a lot of time with at this point in my life. So it is kind of like stepping back into these relationships that I used to have. And it’s interesting because we’ve both grown up. I feel like I’ve grown up and the characters have grown up a little bit. And there’s something more — there’s a nuance and a maturity that I can bring to these characters today that didn’t exist 20 years ago, in terms of my life experience and how the world has changed and how America has changed. It all sort of gets infused in these characters in a new way, even though it’s the same story.
TTM: Absolutely. I think you’ve said that one of the reasons you’ve created this show was that there weren’t the kinds of roles you wanted out there at the time?
Mandvi: When I wrote “Sakina’s Restaurant” initially it was because there weren’t roles. I was playing and getting auditions for Indian characters and it was clear that the people writing them had never met any Indian people. For Muslim characters, it was the same. I was frustrated with having to play these stereotyped characters back then, so I wanted to write a play that humanized these people — the Indian immigrant, the Indian Muslim immigrant experience. I wanted to write characters that felt real. That’s why I wrote “Sakina’s Restaurant.”
Today, of course, we are in a much more different world. We have much more diversity, we have many more brown faces on television and in movies. What’s interesting now about the world is that we’re in a post 9/11 world, we’re in a post internet world, we’re in a post Trump world. The immigrant story is as relevant if not more than it was back then.
— Playbill (@playbill) September 20, 2018
One of the things that “Sakina’s Restaurant” tries to do is humanize the immigrant experience and one of the things that is part of the national dialogue today is the dehumanizing of the immigrant experience. One of the ways is that you dehumanize immigrants is by politicizing them. So, if you make Muslims political and if you make immigrants political, you take away the humanity of these people and their experiences. So what “Sakina’s Restaurant” does today is revisits something theater can do and that is create human experiences and tell the human story of an Indian family that comes to this country and what that means and what the American dream means — the heartbreaks and the joys and what it costs them.
TTM: I also wanted to ask about your partnership with Audible. I think the best part about how this show will be available as audio is that someone who cannot go to an Off-Broadway show can experience these characters. Is that part of the reason you wanted to do it?
Mandvi: That was part of the reason. When you do theater, it’s a magical experience but sadly, there are some people who can’t see the show. Either they don’t live in New York or ticket prices for theater are so expensive. Something like this allows it to reach a wider audience. A much more global audience, because we’ve always lived in a global world but now we’ve more aware of global experiences. So it is amazing it take theater and present it and have people all over the world to have access to it.It’s great for me as a writer and performer but it is also great for others to have that access.
TTM: You’ve seen Hollywood and the portrayal of South Asians change a lot since this show debuted. What do think still needs to be done to move forward?
Mandvi: First of all, we need an Indian or Muslim superhero — I’m up for the job if anyone wants to give it to me. That would change the dialogue in a lot of way.
But also, we have all of these great writers and performers and much more diversity than we did in Hollywood. I think the shift is that in this culture the white American experience is considered the norm. Everything else is considered “diversity.” Whereas one day, we’ll get to the point where an element of diversity is the norm. And I think we’re moving in that direction. There are just so many amazing stories to be told that are not about white people.
TTM: Like this one.
Mandvi: Like this one, and you see it more and more. It’s exciting to see more writers telling stories like that and having more actors help create those stories.
“Sakina’s Restaurant” will run from October 5 to November 4 at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York. For ticket information, head here.