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Zenobia Shroff – From Bombay to New York“Craft, – craft isn’t going to get you nowhere,” says the actress with the flashing eyes and the name which often gets butchered. “ Maybe it’ll get you to an experimental theater, one-day-only show, where you stand on a ladder and iron clothes all day and call that a play– but that’s about it. If that’s what I wanted, I could’ve just stayed in Bombay, been comfortable as the nice, middle-class, Parsi girl goes and does theater as a “hobby,” which at the time was all amateur stuff, regurgitated Neil Simon, or a way for the liberal elite to say something about corruption.”
She adds, “But I wanted more – a helluva lot more. Every night, I would stand on the balcony of our bungalow in South Bombay and ask myself - what if I followed the road less traveled? So I left Bombay, the bungalow, my home, my life.”
Well, this nice middle-class girl from Bombay did follow the road less traveled. It led her all the way to New York City, the school of hard knocks, the elusive hunt for success and happiness. Did she find what she was looking for?Yes – and no. You can share all her experiences in this lively 80 minute one-woman off-Broadway show, ‘How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor’ which is presented by Hypokrit Theater Company in association with the Castillo Theater (September 15 – October 1 from Thursday to Sunday). Without giving away anything about the ending, I have to tell you it stars Zenobia Shroff who is currently starring in the hugely popular film ‘The Big Sick’.
Zenobia, who earlier gave an amazing performance in ‘Little Zizou’, may have reached mainstream success with ‘The Big Sick’ but her story of struggles is one that many South Asian actors will be able to relate to: the lack of suitable parts for minority actors, the way their names are run through the spin cycle (Zenobia has been called everything from Zerbonia to Bubonia, and even for seemingly no good reason, Tennessee.) and asked to do the mandatory ‘Indian accent’. For Zenobia, the roles offered were predictable: “Ethnic urban fashionista, fortune teller, gangster’s moll, terrorist, terrorist’s wife, girl with scarf on head, girl with dot on head, girl with fruit on head. Rinse. Repeat.”
Sometimes to underline the ethnicity, casting agents wanted both the bindi and the hijab! In the play Zenobia says: “I couldn’t tell her, the hijab is Muslim, the bindi is Hindu. When I was asked to be more ethnic or told that I didn’t look Indian because I was fair-skinned, I didn’t know what to say.”
This one-woman play is written by Zenobia with Arpita Mukherjee, and directed by Molly Houlahan. In that darkened auditorium, Zenobia takes you from Bombay to New York and back, playing over 25 different characters, the ghosts of the past and the crass, unbelievable players of the present – sharing the pain and loneliness, the anger and the occasional joy as she pursues her dream while dealing with creepy agents and sleazy bosses, working at wafer-thin day jobs as telemarketer or babysitter.Interwoven with Zenobia’s quest for acting success is the lost alternate life that she does not get to live, the ordinary life of matrimonial bliss and children – and you sense the poignancy and the ache of choices made. As Zenobia says in a startling moment of clarity in the play: “Most of my life has been this; being other people. And for each moment I have lived another life, I have not lived my own.”
Yes, as an actress Zenobia has certainly walked in many women’s shoes (and some have pinched) but she is certainly having the last laugh. ‘The Big Sick’ has been bought by Amazon for $ 12 million and has received great reviews and the signing of new projects has become magically easier for her. ‘Zimbobia from Mesopotamia’ has come a long way.In ‘How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor’ this gifted actress shares the ups and downs, the highs and lows of her life and we watch avidly, we empathize, we laugh with her. In a strange way, we understand it’s our life too…all of us are actors and performing on a giant stage…ethnically ambiguous actors trying to fit into a new different life, making hard choices, giving up something known for something new and unknown…
A Photo Gallery of Opening Night of ‘How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor’ with Mira NairFilmmaker Mira Nair has been a source of inspiration to creative people everywhere, and when those who’ve worked with her start out on a new project, she’s absolutely there to give them her salaams and root for them!
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