3 Young People to Watch in Theater This Spring

These three young theater figures are moving into the public eye with confidence and a determination to expand horizons for themselves and their audiences.

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3 Young People to Watch in Theater This Spring
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, New York Times

These three young theater figures are moving into the public eye with confidence and a determination to expand horizons for themselves and their audiences.

Hammaad Chaudry
Playwright, ‘An Ordinary Muslim’

When Chaudry was 19, he moved from Edinburgh, where he grew up the son of Pakistani immigrants, to attend the University of Surrey, about an hour outside London. He planned to be a lawyer.

But after marching to protest the war in Iraq, Chaudry grew more interested in political activism — and he found his law studies to be tedious and unfulfilling.

He found his voice elsewhere: writing plays. At the end of his first year at university, he joined a writing program at the Royal Court Theater in London geared toward young Muslim writers.

He would eventually pursue a master’s degree at Columbia University, where Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner took Chaudry under his wing.

His thesis play, “An Ordinary Muslim,” tells the story of Azeem Bhatti and his wife, Saima Khan, as they navigate the complicated intersection of their Pakistani heritage and contemporary British culture.

Much in the same vein as Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-winning “Disgraced,” set in New York, Chaudry explores workplace prejudice, Islamophobia and what it means to be a Muslim today — though his drama is firmly set in the British milieu which he has left behind.

Kushner directed two readings of “An Ordinary Muslim” in 2014 and helped Chaudry develop it. In a big break for a relatively young writer, New York Theater Workshop agreed to present the play, Chaudry’s professional debut, directed by Jo Bonney, is scheduled to run through March 11.

Taking a break from rehearsal, Chaudry, 30, spoke about the play’s origins and what his family thinks about the show. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Q: In one spirited scene, Azeem expresses frustration that he is “too Muslim for some, not Muslim enough for others.” This could be a tagline for the play.

A: There are many, many interpretations of Islam. You’re seeing certain expressions of Islam within certain communities become more dominant than others. I think what Azeem is trying to get at is that there’s more than one way of being a Muslim, and he doesn’t necessarily fall into any of those dominant characteristics. In his mind, he’s perceived as not Muslim enough if he doesn’t dress or talk a certain way.

On the other hand, within the wider society — a secular society, Europe in particular — he’s holding on to his faith. It’s not just a cultural identity. There’s some theological basis, meaning he believes in the divine, he’s abstaining from alcohol, he’s trying to pray and so forth.

Q: Is there a such thing as an ordinary Muslim?

A: No, that’s the point of the play. Out of eight characters, seven are Muslim. All seven are practicing. All seven express and embody a different kind of Islam.

Q: Which character do you most relate to?

A: The white guy. No, I’m joking. All the characters contain pieces of me.

Q: How much of your own experience did you put into this play?

A: I’d have to say it’s an amalgamation. Thematically, there’s a lot, in terms of feeling this sense of not belonging here or there and trying to straddle different worlds. In terms of the specific plot, that’s more of families that I’ve seen, families in the community or things that I’ve heard.

Q: What was Tony Kushner’s influence on the play?

A: Tony was very, very generous. He understood what I was trying to get at, but in terms of my craft, I wasn’t there. He provided me with tools to go and make a mess and tear up a play. He gave me confidence in my own voice.

Q: How did you go about casting?

A: A few of the actors are from the original reading that Tony found. Others we found over a three-year process. There was a commitment, on behalf of everybody, to make sure everyone was South Asian.

Q: Is there a message that you’d like the audience to take away?

A: No. Messages are for the Postal Service. Certain questions were interesting to me. I explored them. I went on a discovery with them. Once I made that discovery, I am sharing with the rest.

Q: Are you concerned with how your family will react to the play?

A: No, I am not concerned. I think generally now the family is supportive. Even if they don’t quite understand it, they’re supportive, and that’s nice. My mom is just concerned with me getting married.


Rileigh McDonald
Actress, ‘Good for Otto’

About halfway through a 12-hour rehearsal day, Rileigh McDonald was posing for a photographer. A preternaturally poised 13-year-old, fine-boned and an inch shy of 5 feet tall, she moved as directed from spot to spot in a sunlight-flooded corner of the Pershing Square Signature Center, where she is making her off-Broadway debut in the New Group production of David Rabe’s play “Good for Otto,” opening March 8.

Then McDonald sat down on a staircase, stretching her legs across — with her thick-soled boots, a perfect fit. “Wow, I’m just wide enough,” she said, pleased, and suddenly there it was: behind her professional facade, a regular eighth-grader.

In “Good for Otto,” an ensemble drama set in a mental health center, McDonald’s character is a 12-year-old named Frannie with a tumultuous family life and a tormented psyche. Rhea Perlman plays her foster mother, who is hoping to adopt her, in a starry cast that also includes Ed Harris and Amy Madigan.

Frannie is a challenging, risky role, one that McDonald has researched partly by watching video of a young girl with schizophrenia. She has also talked with some of her mother’s friends who have gone through the adoption process, to learn that social geography.

This is not the first time McDonald has played a girl with a fearsome mind. In July 2015, she stepped into the shared title role in “Matilda the Musical” on Broadway. She and her parents, Lana and Paul McDonald, had moved to New York that spring so she could join the show, while her brother, then an 18-year-old high school senior, stayed behind in Ohio to graduate. She vouched for his maturity. “We trusted him,” she said.

McDonald, who intends to make a career as an actress, plans to spend her own high school years at a performing arts school in New York. She’ll find out soon which one. For now, she goes to a regular public school in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, where she lives.

But she considers herself a Broadway kid, and many of her friends are, too — the kind of young showbiz professionals who get it that she saw the musical “Groundhog Day” eight times, including the first night that Bill Murray was there.

In the 14-person cast of “Good for Otto,” McDonald is the only child, but she said her colleagues treat her as a peer. She seems perfectly at home in a world where she has tutors instead of classes, and her own dressing room — a world where, if the script changes, or the cast does, rolling with it is part of the job.

Originally, Rosie O’Donnell was set to play Nora, Frannie’s foster mother. When O’Donnell pulled out of the production and Perlman replaced her, someone asked McDonald if she knew who Perlman was.

“Of course, I know,” McDonald said, recalling the exchange. “She was Mrs. Wormwood in the ‘Matilda’ movie.” She paused for an instant, then tossed in an older, more famous credit — a little something for the grown-ups: “And ‘Cheers.'”

Andrew Burnap
Actor, ‘The Inheritance’

Until New Year’s Day, Andrew Burnap had never left American soil. Next month, he will star in a major new play on one of London’s most influential stages, the Young Vic, directed by Stephen Daldry, the man behind “The Crown.”

It’s a huge break for Burnap, 26, who graduated from Yale drama school only two years ago.

In Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” a two-part examination of the legacy of the AIDS crisis, he’ll share a stage with Vanessa Redgrave and Tony Award winner John Benjamin Hickey. He turns 27 at the second preview. “No big plans,” he said.

Centered on a group of gay men in New York today, “The Inheritance” asks what a generation owes to its forebears.

“It’s about standing on the shoulders of giants,” Burnap said in the rehearsal room, ice-blue eyes glinting beneath a breaking wave of blond hair. He plays Harry Darling (“the best name I ever had”), a young author adapting a best-selling memoir for the stage.

He won the part after starring in another of Lopez’s plays, “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Playing an Elvis impersonator turned drag queen, Burnap impressed the playwright, who called him “one of the most exciting young actors I’d ever encountered.” Lopez added, “Onstage, he is pure electricity.”

The son of two physician assistants in Kingstown, Rhode Island — a small town in the smallest state — Burnap found moving to New York after Yale “very, very difficult.” Arriving on the day of Donald Trump’s election, he found New York downcast. “It was as if there was a massive citywide funeral,” he recalled.

But he believes that day — and that move — changed him as an actor. “My understanding of privilege started to develop,” he explained. “So many voices have been pushed to one side. We have to be telling those stories.”

Easier said than done when you’ve got the looks of a Disney prince. (A New York Times review of his lead role in “Troilus and Cressida,” for Shakespeare in the Park, likened him to “a long-lost member of One Direction”). But Burnap is adamant: “I’ve very little desire to play famous leading man roles.”

Hence “The Inheritance” — an “eye-opening” process, he said. “The history of gay men isn’t taught,” Burnap said. “Looking at the numbers of men who died, I had no idea.” It’s flipped his politics too: “Reagan was revered in my household — a Republican ideal. It’s been hard to read about what his administration did.”

Bingeing on London theater has persuaded him that the scene here is “so much more political than New York.” And he cites the bottom-end £10 ticket price for “The Inheritance” with awe.

“It’s less concerned with commercialism than with addressing the world as it stands,” he said of his new scene. After a pause, thoughts from home kick in: “Maybe someone will burn down my flat for saying that.”


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