February 17, 2001


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The Rediff US Special/ Aseem Chhabra

Citygirl, SALAAM!
Citygirl, SALAAM!

A couple of years ago, Geeta Chopra went to see an Off Broadway play by Pakistani actor/director Bina Sharif.

In the play -- Spice of Bengal -- a white male actor with a heavy accent played the lead role of a South Asian. "I was so upset, I walked out of the theater," says Chopra, a New York-based actor/director. "I mean, there are so many South Asian actors in New York who could have done that part. Being a Pakistani woman, why did she not cast a South Asian?"

The incident was an eyeopener for Chopra, who till then had strongly believed in colorblind casting. "Had it not been for colorblind casting, I would never been cast in anything," she concedes. "Until then I had never played a South Asian part in a production, because there hardly has been any South Asian parts out there."

Last fall, the desire to get more roles and exposure for South Asian actors led Chopra, 29, to establish a professional theater company, SALAAM (South Asian League of Artists in America). Her co-founder is another South Asian actor/writer/director, Sourabh Chatterjee. In a way SALAAM is the South Asian response to other successful ethnic groups like Pan Asian Rep and the numerous Latino and African American theater companies.

SALAAM is not the only South Asian theater company in New York. Last fall, two South Asian actors Purva Bedi and Rizwan Manji founded Disha. But while the two groups may compete for space and audiences in future, currently they co-exist in harmony.

Both Bedi and Manji have appeared in readings sponsored by SALAAM. Currently, SALAAM features play readings on the third Monday of each month at the Asian American Writers Workshop in midtown Manhattan.

For its first project, the group read Harvest, the award-winning play by writer/illustrator/and cartoonist Manjula Padmanabhan. In 1997, Harvest won the first prize in the Onassis International Cultural Competition for Theatrical Plays.

Growing up as a child on Long Island in a white Jewish neighborhood, Chopra wanted to assimilate with her surroundings. Her parents migrated to this country in the 1960s and most of their family friends were non-South Asian. "I guess we all want to be accepted," she says of her childhood. "I didn't want to be a South Asian. I didn't identify myself with that. I always called myself a New Yorker."

While she was registered as an undergraduate at City College, Chopra transferred for one semester to the University of San Diego. She did not like San Diego and its open sunny beaches and spent most of her time complaining about how much she missed New York. Her classmates, who had a tough time correctly pronouncing the name "Geeta", gave her a nickname "Citygirl."

When she turned 18, she officially changed her name to Geeta Citygirl. "My parents know that's my nickname and most of my friends call me City," she adds.

The passion for theater led her to join the two year conservatory program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, a prestigious institution with a strong list of alumni, including Spencer Tracey, Grace Kelly, Kirk Douglas, Anne Bancroft, Robert Redford and Danny De Vito. Graduating from AADA, Chopra's immediate concern was to get challenging roles.

"I would go out as an actor, I wanted to play different roles, with stories that I could relate to and embody," she recalls. "Whether it was South Asian or non-South Asian wasn't my concern. My interest was getting work and making a living."

Often she experienced reverse discrimination. Once, while auditioning for role in a commercial, she was told she wasn't South Asian enough. Part of the reason may have been because she would go for auditions with colored hair and a painted trademark heart on her face -- a look that did not go well with casting directors who had a more traditional look in their mind.

The recent debate on race in American theater pushed Chopra to go deep within herself to take a position on the issue. As an actor she felt she should be able to play different parts. But the casting of the white actor as a South Asian changed it all for her.

"It is very problematic, because the way the theater world is set up, most of the theaters are owned by white people and so whites are going to get all the parts," she says.

"When you have a part that is South Asian, it should be offered to a South Asian. It is important since we haven't had the same opportunities that other folks have had." One reason South Asian actors did not get so many opportunities may have been because the community itself was not receptive to theater and acting.

"When I joined AADA, my parents got a lot of flak from people who asked, 'What kind of a career has Geeta chosen?' " she says. "Now, everybody and their mother wants to be an actor, or a dancer or a Miss India. And it didn't hurt that the American culture went gaga over South Asianness in the past few years."

SALAAM has had no shortage of actors for the readings. The entire cast of Ayub Khan-Din's New York production, East is East has participated in one or more of SALAAM events. "These are Equity actors, who don't have to do this stuff for me, for free," says Gita. "But they do it because they feel passionately for the cause."

Since its inception, SALAAM's play readings have sold out (the theater space has a capacity of approximately 80 seats), and Chopra and Chatterjee have actually had to turn away people. Sixty per cent of the audience tends to be South Asian ("The whole progressive South Asian crew," Chopra says). Fundraising for the group is an issue that still needs to be ironed out. But checks have already started to come in.

Recently Chopra was at a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where she saw Julie Taymor (director of Titus and the stage version of Lion King) surrounded by people. Somehow Chopra mustered the courage to walk up to Taymor and speak about SALAAM. "I guess she read what I was carrying in the folder and I speak passionately about SALAAM," says Chopra. "A month later we got a check from her -- our first check."

Design: Dominic Xavier

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