Writer, actor and producer Fawzia Mirza uses comedy to jump start conversations and challenge stereotypes

Chicago based Fawzia Mirza speaks on using her art to initiate conversation on diversity in film
Actor Fawzia Mirza, seen here in her home in Chicago on Oct. 1, says the conversation about Muslims has to go beyond the narrative of terrorism. (Muna Khan/Medill)

By Muna Khan

Fawzia Mirza stands on a practically bare stage. Her only companions are three chairs situated on a colorful carpet, suggesting a movie theater where Mirza is pretending to be attending a screening of a film starring famed Indian actor Sharmila Tagore. Mirza tells the audience at the Steppenwolf Theatre about how much she and her mother love Tagore, whose nearly 50-year career as a Bollywood icon is marked not only by her magnetic performances, but by her defiance of societal norms.

Tagore’s career and the pretend film screening form the through-line for Mirza’s one-woman play, “Me, My Mom and Sharmila,” a coming-of-age story that almost charts Mirza’s own norm-defying life. For nearly 90 minutes, Mirza, a Pakistani-American actor, writer and producer, regales her audience with tales from a journey that takes us from her childhood in Canada and the U.S., where, as the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she desperately tried to fit in, to her relationship with her mother, to the moment when she came out as gay to her mother on a crowded airport lounge floor moments before her flight was announced.

The performance runs a gamut of emotions, while exploding stereotypes about what it means to be Muslim, a woman and a member of the LGBQT community. Mirza says her goal in creating the play was not necessarily to lift the lid off uncomfortable truths or to discuss issues often brushed under the carpet in South Asian families, especially issues involving sex or sexuality. Her goal was simply to start conversations that she herself found difficult to initiate.

“One of the reasons I started doing this work was because I didn’t know how to have this conversation with somebody one on one,” she said. “So how I had that conversation was to create something artistic, put it out there and feel like I worked something out hopefully.”

She has been performing “Me, My Mom and Sharmila,” which she originally wrote and debuted in Chicago in 2014, on college campuses across America and also in three cities in Pakistan, her parents’ home country, in 2015.

The play, and Mirza’s performance, strikes a particular chord with South Asian and Muslim viewers, who seldom see full-bodied depictions of themselves in popular culture.

“Fawzia was brilliant,” said an ebullient Taimour Khan, who saw the play in September.

Khan, a recent Chicago transplant who originally hails from Pakistan’s northern area of Swat, said that while he identified with many of the themes in the play, he also felt it had universal appeal. “I could see her play resonating with me simply because she was talking about people and places similar to those I’d seen in my experience,” Khan said, “but the true genius of the play lay in the fact that it had something that could resonate with everybody.”

“Me, My Mom and Sharmila” is just one line on a resume that includes Mirza’s three-year stint as an attorney and a growing body of artistic work that ranges from writing and acting in short films and web series, including “Her Story” which was nominated for an Emmy this year in the newly created category of original short form comedy.

The characters in her web-based series are hilarious send-ups of pop culture fixtures. Kam Kardashian, for example, is the long-lost gay sister desperate to get together with the famed family. More recently, Mirza put up a video on YouTube about being Ayesha Trump the illegitimate Muslim daughter of Donald Trump as a way to poke fun at the Republican presidential candidate’s proposal to ban Muslims. The daughter says things like Trump created the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City as a symbol of his devotion to her mother.

More than anything, however, Mirza’s creations attempt to illustrate how complex a concept human identity is by showcasing the multiple facets of her own identity.

“I’m not just South Asian or Pakistani or Indian, or a female or a cis gendered female,” she said. “I’m not just queer, not just lesbian, not just Muslim. I am all of those things all the time. Embracing that identity can be really complicated, so that’s my work.”

Mirza was born in London, Ontario, Canada and lived in Sydney, Nova Scotia mostly before the family moved to Indiana in 1995. She lived there until 2005, earning her bachelor’s and law school degrees. She practiced law for three years before realizing it was not for her. She had taken an acting class while practicing law, and had done a few plays in high school, along with being on the speech team and in the band. When she abandoned law, she retured to acting and continued to pursue writing.

“I don’t know if at that time I ever actually thought I could pursue acting as a profession,” she said. “But what I learned after taking that acting class and was reminded of was that performing ignited something inside me that I couldn’t ignore and had to continue.”

Mirza said she was an activist as an attorney and continues to be an activist as a performer, using her art to promote causes she’s passionate about. She does not see social justice as separate from her work; it is essential to her being.

Another essential element of her work is the control she attempts to maintain in an effort to tell the stories she feels are important—often stories about people of color and LGBTQ communities that mainstream production companies are unwilling or afraid to develop. It’s for that reason that she not only writes and acts in her pieces, she produces them as well, some of them with her partner, Nabeela Rasheed.

“For me the power has come from trying to do it all, not being afraid to try and embrace the categories,” she said, adding “mainstream spaces don’t understand what to do with [our stories] unless they’re packaged a certain way.”

While she says that “Me, My Mom and Sharmila” has a special place in her heart, the work is not so precious that it stays frozen in place. She updates the monologues regularly to reflect changes in the world as well as her own growth.

The play has received warm ovations from audiences all across the country. In 2015 she performed it at the International Theatre Festival at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Pakistan. Even Mirza’s idol, Tagore, came to a performance of the play in Chicago last year.

Mirza’s next project is a special one: her first feature film, “Signature Move,” in which the highly revered Bollywood actor Shabana Azmi will play the role of her mother. The film chronicles the life of Zainab, a Pakistani-American lawyer played by Mirza, who falls in love with Alma, a Mexican woman played by Sari Sanchez. But it is also about familial relationships, especially a mother-daughter one.

The film is currently in post-production and should be ready for release next year.

Mirza is also currently working on a few script ideas for a TV pilot and a digital series with writer and director Lisa Donato, with whom she wrote “Signature Move.” She’s also looking for funding to develop what she hopes will be a comedic travelogue documentary series with LA-based comedian Lianna Carrera called “Two Lesbians in Search of Allah.” The trailer for it is up online as a pitch document.

“It may be two lesbians in search of Allah,” she said. “But it may also be two lesbians in search of something else, using comedy as a platform to have conversations.”

And having conversations is what Fawzia Mirza and her work are all about.

Actor Fawzia Mirza, seen here in her Chicago home on Oct. 1, says the conversation about Muslims has to go beyond the narrative of terrorism. (Muna Khan/Medill)