Indian Cowboy: Zaraawar Mistry’s Journey
Mixed Blood Theatre, Thursday 26 January @ 13:17:30
If you haven’t followed the career of actor-director-playwright Zaraawar Mistry, this is an opportune time to take note of the seasoned veteran. He’s enjoying a heightened profile and making a significant transition—one that happens to benefit him as well as Twin Cities theater.
Last season, he acted at Mixed Blood Theatre in a successful run of Sujata Bhatt’s off-the-hook comedy “Queen of the Remote Control.” Mistry follows with a return to Mixed Blood, acting in the premiere of his own script, “Indian Cowboy.” Kind of a trans-Atlantic “Siddhartha,” it chronicles the self-quest of a young man as he journeys from India to America and back: found under a banyan tree in Hyderabad, India, and raised by three Parsi brothers, a foundling looks for his place in the world. It took quite some time for Mistry to land this far center stage after being on the boards at not only Mixed Blood Theatre, but also the Guthrie Theater and Children’s Theatre Company. In fact, the groundwork for “Indian Cowboy” began back in 1999, when Blood artistic director Jack Reuler handed him a commission. “In those days,” Mistry recalls, “I was [associate artistic director] at Theater Mu. Occasionally I did some writing.” This included small projects for artistic director Rick Shiomi and at least one piece with Ragamala Music and Dance Theater artistic director Ranee Ramaswamy. Nothing to sneeze at, of course, but he still wanted to do his own thing. “I’d written and directed on a very small scale [at the Fringe] and had started work on other projects.” Chomping at the bit, he started in on what began as a biography of international child star Sabu (“Jungle Book,” “Elephant Boy,” “Song of India”). It switched gears. “I was interested in his life story, which is very compelling. But, really, what I was trying to write about was things that interested me about, you know, cultural displacement and the things that happen when you come to America from a different culture and what people’s perception of that other culture is.” Dyed-in-the-wool existentialism.
Along the line, he grappled with the project even as he did other gigs, notably directing his stage adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel “Haroun and The Sea of Stories” at Mixed Blood in 2000. The commission evolved from a study of Sabu to hitting much closer to the playwright’s home. “About two years ago, I had a bit of an epiphany. There was a story I wanted to tell, but I was using Sabu as a vehicle. What I needed to do was to let [him] go and work on the story I had within me. Out of that came a whole new vehicle.” So, all’s well that ends well. It helped that Jack Reuler didn’t do any second-guessing. He remarks, “Zaraawar Mistry is the consummate theater artist, loaded with tools and skills [and] led by heart and scruples.” Through the show’s development, he didn’t feel the need to tinker, but just gave Zaraawar room in which to move. “I have never been as hands-off on a commission as I have been on this. It has been said that the gestation period of an Indian elephant is 22 months, but when it’s born, by gosh, it’s an elephant. Such is the case with “Indian Cowboy”—a long gestation period with fascinating, complex results.” Reuler adds, “His theme has needed autonomy as much as his approach as an auteur. A recurring [premise] in Zaraawar’s work is the notion of stranger in a strange land. For example, as a Parsi growing up in India, he wasn’t ‘Indian enough.’ In America he isn’t considered ‘western enough’ or ‘Indian enough.’ [Zaraawar] needs his independence to say what he wants as creator, director and performer.”
The transition that portends good things for Zaraawar Mistry and area theater-goers is his giving up the reins as founder of the Center for Independent Artists, which he ran from 2001 until Jan. 1 of the new year, when he turned things over to new artistic managing director Mankwe Ndosi. CIA arguably could be considered Mistry’s most profound accomplishment to date. It remains one of the few venues outside the Minnesota Fringe Festival where writers, performers, directors—you name it—can self-produce. And, beyond being a theatrical version of a vanity press, it’s a clearinghouse for knowledge about how to put a show up on its feet. “I felt there was a lack of resources for [artists] who are trying to do things on their own,” says Zaraawar Mistry. “On their own terms without having to fit into somebody else’s mission. There was a lack of space, equipment and knowing where you can rent it, guidance about [even] things like how to develop ideas for a program, how to write a grant. There was just a dearth of resources in that area.” CIA has provided a proving ground for renowned playwright-actor Carlyle Brown’s “The Fula from America: An African Journey,” which debuted there before going on to stagings all around the country. Spoken word ace Bao Phi and performance artist David Daniels have also showcased there.
Pleased that the organization is solidly on its feet and, in fact, growing, Mistry left and moved with his wife, Leslye Orr, from Minneapolis to Midway in St. Paul, where they have created Dreamland Art. “[We] bought this quirky little place that has a house attached to an office building. We’re converting the office building into an [intimate] performing arts studio. It’s named after an old, ramshackle movie theater [in] Secunderabad, my mother’s hometown in India. It was this really dilapidated place and, yet, it was called Dreamland and it was kind of fun and magical.” Audiences who appreciate an up-close-and-personal space imaginably will enjoy the enterprise, making both themselves and Mistry and Orr quite happy.
He sums up “Indian Cowboy” thusly: “The story is not autobiographical, but it is based on what I have experienced and observed as an immigrant to this country.” He is not taking a director’s credit this time around. “There’s no real director. I’ve got two collaborators and we’re putting this on as a team effort.” The rest of the creative team for an outing that features Mistry as the sole cast-member, is script collaborator Kathleen Sullivan and composer-performer Keith Lee. “It’s a nice, loose collaboration.” ||
Zaraawar Mistry’s “Indian Cowboy” opens on Fri., Jan. 27 at Mixed Blood Theatre and runs through Sun., Feb. 12. Wed.–Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sun. at 3 p.m. $11–$28. 1501 S. Fourth St., Mpls. 612-338-6131.
For more info, visit MixedBlood.com.