by Sophia Romma
The Paradise Factory played host to a solo performance by animated Zenobia Shroff, the co-writer and actress of “How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor,” as part of the 2016 Planet Connections Festivity. A spotlight hits Zenobia as she appears on the claustrophobic stage, pointing a stern finger at the audience whom she refers to as members of a master class in how to succeed as an ethnically ambiguous talent. Expelling bullets of rage, Zenobia rants about her foibles in the ebbing life of an actress who’s unable to play mainstream roles since she’s often shunned due to her ethnic ambiguity. Zenobia, in excerpted scenes from her lamentable past, unveils her long-winded journey from South Bombay to the mean streets of New York, as she strives to become a famous actress, facing doom, poverty, racial discrimination, female angst, at the hands of uneducated and dense casting directors with sparse sympathy for her noble plight to attain stardom while giving up on traditional womanly motifs of becoming a congenial wife and bearing children.
“How to Succeed as an Ethnically Ambiguous Actor” is not about how to succeed in the unforgiving demanding entertainment industry, rather, it’s about how to shed your skin, grow into your ethnic face, find your cultural home and rest at ease in your space, where you will always be unidentifiable, exotic and ambiguously depressed. Although there’s an absence of effective directing in this piece, Zenobia transforms from one character and settles like fine moss into portraying another, with exquisite finesse. She scoffs at ignorant casting directors and lovers who snatch her off the streets only to enslave her with a concocted vague ethnic identity, someone she could never be—an ambiguously sexy Pygmalion. One lover actually goes so far as to whip her into accepting Christianity, and while she dutifully attends church in order to appease him and his pious worshipping ways since he’s a spitting image of George Clooney and she’s dying to bed him; she nonetheless cannot accept Christ into her soul and consequently the virgin gentleman abandons her.
Zenobia commands the space quite admirably, engaging the audience with poignant humor and social commentary on inherent racial biases. She says that “acting is not about pretending to be someone, it is about becoming someone.” She demonstrates her agility in becoming a male chauvinistic street vendor, a perverted office manager, an Italian boyfriend with a wild fantasy but with limited imagination and compassion. Standing on the corner of Canal Street, selling pashminas, Zenobia is belittled yet she emerges with a gust of bravado and smoothly transfixes into a character who babysits an incorrigible child, and while the child shockingly demands that Zenobia jump from the 12th floor to entertain her, our heroine, poised as ever, sets the little wench in her rightful place by telling her to “stop playing with her poop, it’s not cool, it’s shit, not play-do.”
In a skit dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, Zenobia is hired as an administrative assistant to a man who desires the “company of a young fair-skinned Indian Girl running mad in the city.” Zenobia fights hard against this demeaning image, only to be hired as a telemarketer who must make vocal impressions of Carmen Miranda, Gloria Estefan and crooning superstars from Bollywood without making a single sale.
It’s true that actors live in transitional spaces, between auditions, like butterflies of the night, grasping at one role, flying on to the next. Zenobia wrestles with an identity which she must explain to others. “No I am not from Mesopotamia, it does not even exist anymore. No I’m not Middle Eastern, Indiana Jones lied to you; I actually am what Indian looks like!”
Zenobia ponders: “What is a nice middle class Pharisee girl from Bombay doing on Broadway? I should have had a family.” She physically measures the life—the paths taken and the paths not taken. The fact that Zenobia, a star-struck girl from South Bombay who sought to discover the world and conquer fame, isn’t a riveting aspect in the liturgy of theatre. However, Zenobia’s show candidly explores the ethnically ambiguous terrain. Zenobia confides: “For every moment that I lived someone else’s life, I’ve never lived my own.” Whether the actor is ethnically ambiguous or not, the actor faces solitary confinement in the multitude passionate lives which he or she portrays, while searching for identity and ultimately accepting the path not taken and the one finally chosen.
Hypokrit Theatre Company Presents: How to Succeed as an Ambiguous Actor, directed by Arpita Mukherjree at the Paradise Factory, 64 E. 4th St. NY, NY 10003, Downstairs Theatre. Sunday, 6/19 until Saturday, 7/9. Buy Tickets at www.planetconnections.org