Plays featuring mistaken identities have a glorious history in the theatre. Several of William Shakespeare’s works, including Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, revolve around this theme. Moreover, the Bard was far from the first to try this. This device dates back to the comedic Athenian playwright Menander in Ancient Greece.
With The Wrong Bashir, B.C. playwright Zahida Rahemtulla is making use of mistaken identity and farcical comedy in a distinctly 21st-century setting. In this upcoming Touchstone Theatre production, she relies on humour to convey changes taking place in the Ismaili Muslim community in Canada.
“By writing a play, I wanted to capture a transitional moment between continents and between generations before it passed,” Rahemtulla tells Pancouver by phone.
The Ismailis are a progressive Shia sect, with many tracing their ancestral roots to the western Indian state of Gujarat. A large number left East Africa in the 1970s. This was due in part to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s decision to expel 80,000 residents of Asian ancestry. As a result, many thousands settled in Metro Vancouver and other parts of the country.
The premise of Rahemtulla’s play is that a young philosophy major named Bashir is chosen for a prestigious religious position. His parents are thrilled and say “yes” before Ismaili community leaders have even shown up at his door. When they do appear, some suspect that they’ve given the post to the wrong Bashir.
“The family is confused,” Rahemtulla says. “They think that their son has been chosen.”
Bashir is already dealing with a great deal of existential angst. According to the playwright, his outlook on life differs from that of his elders. Yet he realizes that his family wants him to take this new position.
Life for Rahemtulla imitates her art
As the Canadian-born daughter of Ismaili immigrants, Rahemtulla can relate to the large cast of characters in her play. In fact, her maternal grandparents were among the first Mukhis (religious leaders) at an Ismaili mosque that used to be on East Hastings Street.
They were also deeply involved in the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Burnaby.
“They lived across the street from the Jamatkhana,” Rahemtulla says. “There were always people at their house—at their kitchen table.”
She recalls her grandmother sending her grandfather out to deliver food to seniors and people living alone. Sometimes, Rahemtulla and her siblings offered assistance. In addition, her grandparents helped in other ways, just as they did when they lived in East Africa.
They also benefited from the communal mindset of other Ismailis when they first moved to Canada. Rahemtulla contrasts that philosophy with how people exist under much more individualized western capitalism in North America.
“I noted that my grandparents and parents kind of had a different idea of what we owe others—and a different sensibility about that,” Rahemtulla says.
As an example, she mentions that more communally oriented communities look after the “annoying people”. But she points out that in our modern western society, many expect institutions to do that work.
As a result, Rahemtulla feels that subsequent generations of Ismailis born in Canada won’t necessarily retain the communal values of her parents and grandparents. It’s something she explores in The Wrong Bashir.
“When communities migrate it’s often not just language or culture that’s lost, but also a certain way of being, which can happen when any community that’s more communal changes,” she explains. “I was really interested in that question because I grew up seeing those contrasts.”
The Wrong Bashir has a large cast
Rahemtulla came out of community theatre and studied literature and Arab Crossroads Studies at New York University in Abu Dhabi.
In 2017, she began writing The Wrong Bashir, which has 10 characters. This was before she realized a major difference between doing something professionally versus a community or school production. In the latter categories, playwrights create more parts to ensure that everyone gets a role, but that’s not the case with professional shows.
Yet despite the large cast, it still elicited the interest of many local organizations. At first, Rahemtulla developed The Wrong Bashir through the Playwrights Theatre Centre’s Block A program and the Arts Club Theatre’s Leap program. In 2018, the South Asian Arts Society offered a reading at the Monsoon Festival. Later, the play was with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre’s MSG Lab.
In 2022, the Arts Club Theatre Company released an audioversion of The Wrong Bashir. Rahemtulla says that it would have been staged much earlier were it not for COVID-19.
“It was quite a journey getting it produced during the pandemic,” she acknowledges.
The delays led her to tell family members that she might have to give up on her dream.
Flying Start Program gives play a new life
The Wrong Bashir is Rahemtulla’s first play for a professional theatre company.
Her second play, The Frontliners, is inspired by her work with refugee-support organizations. It received the Playwrights Guild of Canada RBC Emerging Playwright Award and Theatre BC’s Play of Special Merit Award.
Rahemtulla expresses gratitude to Touchstone Theatre for selecting The Wrong Bashir in its Flying Start Program, which provides a stage to new professional playwrights. Daniela Atiencia made the final decision in consultation with fellow jurors—and she’s directing The Wrong Bashir.
“I think new play development requires a very special gene from a director,” Rahemtulla says. “I’ve been lucky with The Wrong Bashir with Daniela—and the directors that I’ve worked with in the past.”
Touchstone Theatre will present The Wrong Bashir in association with the Firehall Arts Centre and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre at the Firehall Arts Centre from March 2 to 12. For more information and tickets, visit the Touchstone Theatre website. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.