Carolyn Michelle Smith and Kaliswa Brewster in Soldier X
Photo courtesy Ma-Yi Theater
A news article about the funeral of a Bangladeshi American Muslim military man served as the initial spark for Rehana Lew Mirza’s play, Soldier X. “It was just about the loss of him through his family’s eyes,” says Mirza. “That stirred my interest, and I started to write around that.”
Soldier X centers on a love triangle between Jay, a marine just returning from Afghanistan; Monica, a social worker helping him to readjust to civilian life in San Diego; and Amani, the sister of Jay’s fallen comrade. It is receiving its world premiere from Ma-Yi Theater at HERE, beginning previews March 24, with an official opening on March 31.
The play was originally commissioned by the Lark Play Development Center and further developed at Tofte Lake, where Mirza had an Emerging Artist Residency, as well as with the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. Mirza served two years as co-director of the latter, along with husband and fellow playwright Michael Lew. This professional peer-based workshop, under the aegis of Ma-Yi Theater, is designed to nurture Asian American playwrights. Lucie Tiberghien came on board as director of Soldier X during one of the four workshops Ma-Yi did for the play, and is helming the current production, which marks Mirza’s Off-Broadway debut.
DAN BACALZO: What kind of research did you do to prepare yourself for writing this play?
REHANA LEW MIRZA: When I first started back in 2011 or so, I read Generation Kill [a 2004 book by journalist Evan Wright, who was embedded with a U.S. marines battalion during the invasion of Iraq], saw a lot of movies, read a lot of books, and found an online blog by veterans. Then, as I was doing workshops and drafts, I started talking to a lot of people. One of my friends from high school is a medic and did multiple tours. I talked to a West Point cadet, someone who was very, very new—17, 18—just to get the sense of the variety of people working in the field. I talked to a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who’s at the naval base in San Diego to get a more specific geographical perspective as well as someone who sees veterans from that side of the table. I also spoke to a couple of marines. That was during the writing process. For the production, we brought a couple of marines—a female and a male—into the rehearsal room to talk to us, read the script, and get some feedback. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of people give their time, be patient with my questions, and listen to me talk about what’s the realistic choice, what’s the dramatic choice, and what’s the middle ground.
DB: How does that research inform the play’s central love triangle?
RLM: Some of our military consultants said that sometimes when you come back, you try to regain what you lost. So for Jay, it’s Amani that he’s trying to connect with in order to ease the feeling that he has for having lost his friend. And similarly for Amani, she’s trying to fill that hole in her life where her brother was with Jay. Then you have a social worker, Monica, who sees so clearly that this is what they’re doing and that it’s not necessarily healthy. But she also has her own feelings for Jay.
DB: The representation of Muslim characters on the contemporary American stage is somewhat fraught, to say the least. When you were writing the part of Amani, were you consciously trying to address and/or counter existing stereotypes and representations, or do you not really think about such issues when writing?
RLM: I definitely consciously think about stereotypes and representations, even if it’s not the focus. I try to address a lot of the complications that have arisen out of these 14 years of fighting a war in terms of this country’s sentiment towards Muslims. I don’t think it’s very realistic to say all Muslims are this way or that all Muslims are not that way. I’m trying to find that messy middle ground.
Rehana Lew Mirza
Photo by Christine Chambers
DB: Since you mention the 14 years of fighting, I was curious if the play takes any kind of political stance for or against the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
RLM: I try to find my way through this play through characters. I think it definitely takes a stance on violence against women and how perhaps this war has seeped into our society without us realizing it.
DB: One of the things that I find intriguing about this work is its focus on the reintegration of the soldier into society. Can you talk a little more about how you develop that theme within the play?
RLM: What I’m really trying to look at is how the system is equipped and how we as a society are equipped to deal with the generations of people who are coming back. Fourteen years really is a lot of time, and there’s a lot of people here that need resources and help and I don’t know how well equipped we are since we are so fragmented from it in a certain way. I’m questioning that a lot, because I do think that the sheer numbers of people who are going to need help is something we haven’t thought about at all.
DB: The subject matter seems very heavy, but is there also a lighter side to the play?
RLM: I actually like to incorporate humor as much as possible. Maybe it’s a darker humor. But it’s not all gloom and doom. When you’re looking at 20-somethings in San Diego, there’s a lot of lightness to it, too.
Soldier X is being presented by Ma-Yi Theater at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue) through April 19. Performances are Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8:30pm, with matinees Sundays at 4pm. Tickets are $15-$30 and can be reserved by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting www.here.org. For more information on Ma-Yi Theater, visit ma-yitheatre.org.