“One of the roles I auditioned for was ‘Terrorist No 2’s girlfriend,’” Aizzah Fatima admits, laughing. The former Google employee, in London with a one-woman play, had dreamed of being an actor since seeing her first play at 13. But growing up in a Pakistani American family in Mississippi, it seemed an unlikely ambition. And it wasn’t until she moved to New York to study that she joined the American Academy of Performing Arts – only to find herself immediately typecast after finishing her training.
“I was truly disheartened by the kinds of roles that were out there,” she tells me, as she prepares for the first of her two UK dates. It’s hardly the first time a “brown” actor has complained about stereotyping: Dev Patel and Nabil Elouahabi have complained about it, while Tahar Rahim says he has refused to play terrorists. Yet Fatima says it was particularly frustrating, because “I felt as if I was surrounded by all these amazing women who had remarkable stories to tell – first- and second-generation immigrant women – who just happened to be Pakistani Americans.”
In response, she decided to write her own show, took a writing class and began interviewing women in the Muslim community. The result is Dirty Paki Lingerie, in which she plays six different Pakistani American women aged from six to 65, all exploring “what it means to be a Muslim, Pakistani woman in America, post-9/11”.
The provocative title has caused waves here and in the US, if not always for the same reason. “I was totally aware that Paki was a racist term in Europe,” she admits. “But when I wrote this show in my living room I never thought it would have a life beyond there.”
The connotation, however, just adds another layer to the title and fits in with the prejudice that her characters deal with. In the US, meanwhile, it’s the sexual suggestiveness that has raised concerns.
“People have a bigger issue with the word lingerie,” Fatima says. “And actually I was recently talking to someone prominent in the Muslim community in the UK who said I could do a four- or five-city tour with it and get it on TV, but they wanted me to change the title to Dirty Paki Laundry. But I feel like the title sums up the issues in the play – it’s funny, political, sexy and thoughtful.”
When she first began taking the play to festivals in New York, she was aiming it at a non-Muslim audience. “I felt there was a lack of understanding of Muslim Americans and that we never see the female experience.” Now she has toured the world with it – from Canada to Turkmenistan – the audience reaction has made her keen to use it to spark a discussion among Muslims themselves. “I realised there was such a lack of dialogue within the community about these issues,” she says.
“In New York after the show, a 16-year-old Bangladeshi American girl came up to me. She had seen the show with her mother, who didn’t speak any English and had divorced her father because he was abusive.
“She said to me: ‘Have you figured out how to live between the two cultures by yourself?’ Which I found heartbreaking, because it told me she had no one to turn to and was struggling with these issues herself.”
Fatima is now planning to tour the show, along with workshops and Q&A sessions, around college towns in the US. Thanks to a stint at the Edinburgh festival she is collaborating with a film-maker to turn the play into a movie, and has been offered roles in plays and films – none of which, she promises, involve playing the girlfriend of a terrorist.