First-time Scottish Muslim playwright Hammaad Chaudry recently tackled issues related to Islamophobia, religion and immigrant family dysfunctionality in his off-Broadway production called An Ordinary Muslim. Staged in February and March 2018 at the New York Theater Workshop, the timely play looks at the traumas of dislocation among the children of Pakistani Muslim immigrants in England in a post-9/11 world.
Two Washington University alumni were cast in the production: Sanjit De Silva, AB ’98, in the lead role of Azeem Bhatti, and Sathya Sridharan, AB ’09, as local mosque leader Hamza Jameel. In March, the two actors sat down on set for an interview with fellow alumnus Arsalan Iftikhar, AB ’99, JD ’03, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and senior fellow for The Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University. The three men discussed the off-Broadway play, the trajectory of their careers and the impact that the university has had on their lives.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Please tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up?
SATHYA SRIDHARAN: I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and raised in the West County suburb of Ballwin. My parents were immigrants from South India who settled in the U.S. in the ’80s. My dad was actually a professor at WashU in civil engineering for 35 years, and my sister also went to WashU.
IFTIKHAR: So you’re a WashU family?
SRIDHARAN: (laughs) Yes, we are a WashU family.
SANJIT DE SILVA: I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka. After civil war broke out there, my family moved to Uganda. After war broke out in Uganda, we then moved to Nairobi, Kenya. Eventually, I moved to the United States at age 10 when my mother took a job at the United Nations, so then we moved to Queens. After war broke out in Queens (laughs), we moved to Stamford, Connecticut, where I eventually went to middle school and high school.
IFTIKHAR: When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
DE SILVA: I didn’t know for a while. Like many South Asian parents, my mother and father wanted me to be a doctor, to attend a Top 20 university geographically close to my uncle [who happens to live in St. Louis]. Since WashU met all those requirements, I applied early decision and never looked back. I was a biology major who slowly started to get involved in drama. And about six months before I was to take the MCAT, I decided that I didn’t want to become a doctor.
So I started doing film. I made a film while at WashU that won an award, and then I became an intern for Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. Then I basically had to tell my parents that I didn’t want to become a doctor and that instead I wanted to pursue a career as an artist.
SRIDHARAN: In the back of mind, I always thought that I would become an actor. I hear that I came out of the womb making jokes, and as a kid, I was always trying to become the center of attention. I performed in plays all throughout middle and high school, always getting jealous if I didn’t get the lead role (laughs). I was on my way to becoming an academic, but my parents were very supportive when I decided to become an actor.
IFTIKHAR: What made you choose Washington University?
SRIDHARAN: Like Sanjit, I also applied early decision to WashU. Because my dad was a WashU professor, I always associated higher education with WashU’s campus. It was the most beautiful place in the world to me as a kid growing up in St. Louis.
IFTIKHAR: Who were some of your mentors in the WashU drama department?
DE SILVA: Andrea Urice, Bill Whitaker and Annamaria Pileggi were very important to my growth as an actor.
SRIDHARAN: All of those people Sanjit mentioned, and I would also add Jeffery Matthews, who was my first-year acting teacher. And, of course, Henry Schvey, who directed me in a production of Hamlet my senior year, which was very instrumental in my becoming an actor.