It’s nearly time to take the main stage as the final preparations are underway at the Manhattan Center. A loud voice from the far end announces, “once again,” and the cast assembles onstage to perform the act once more so that the production cues can be perfected. The voice is familiar to the cast as it belongs to Stories director, Farah Remtulla, who has put the production together along with playwright, composer and co-director, Samira Noorali.
Following the grand premiere of Stories at the Walt Disney Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Orlando, the opportunity to perform at the Manhattan Center in the Broadway district of New York City was a treat for the cast.
For Remtulla, performing at this level has been an “amazing, nostalgic and meaningful experience, as New York City is one of the most popular places on earth to be doing such a production. Being in this space is both inspiring and humbling.”
Being center stage and in the spotlight can be a heartening and daunting experience especially in front of a large audience.
In front of a full-house audience at showtime, 10-year-old Nimisha Badruddin from Los Angeles screams, “Gaal rasgulle jaise ho gaye hain rasgulle kha kha ke.” She was enjoying a feast with Issbah Khowaja, both being the youngest cast members of the production. “Speaking in an accent was my greatest challenge,” Nimisha later said. She has previously performed as a rapper during the Diamond Jubilee opening ceremony. Her father, Farooq Badruddin, felt “very proud and happy to have heard that his daughter got selected for the role.”
Khowaja played the role of a 12-year-old girl named Noori. “I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into,” she explains, “but my experience so far is one that I will never forget. The Stories team has truly become a family to me, and I’m forging wonderful memories with them.”
Amongst the variety of instruments in the production, there was a striking sound made on a teak and rosewood hallowed instrument – the tabla. Born into the Hindu community, married to an Ismaili, and a part of our interfaith community, instrumentalist Mitt Bhatt started playing the tabla when he was just nine-years-old. He attends the Early Childhood Development Center in Jamatkhana with his son and appreciates the unity and diversity of the American Jamat. Coming from a family with a long-standing tradition of music, this engineer’s experience with the production thus far has been “amazing.” He jokes that his parents sent him for tabla training because he was “not a good singer.” He adds, “we had to improvise and change a lot of things even during the show. The audiences can’t tell, but we improvise all the time.”
Hollywood sitcom star Rizwan Manji has coached the artists over the past year of rehearsals. He was onsite as the creative director providing feedback, insight, and support to the cast through their rehearsals.
“The live show feels different every time I watch it because the Jamat is different,” said Manji. “You see people recognize their stories. Everybody will get something out of it, and you feel the energy of the Jamat. Manji added that he has been “taken aback by how many talented people we have in our community.”
“It was amazing to see their commitment and passion,” said Remtulla, who is an IT Management Consultant by profession. “Some now want to pursue this as a career. One example is Amaan, our trumpet player, who was accepted in the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Some of our cast members have been in different and dynamic careers pursuing arts, such as acting, musical theater, singing, and comedy. For instance, Stories vocalist Nabeel Muscatwala, a Northwestern University student, is part of a sketch comedy group on campus and sings for the university’s oldest a capella group.”
For Shajahan Merchant, President of the Council for the Northeastern United States, the performance was much more than a Broadway-style show: “It was a celebration of the journey of the United States Jamat, which was so beautifully presented by outstanding Ismaili artists, in a mesmerizing performing arts rendition.” He added, “I was moved by the dedication of the backstage crew and other volunteers.”
Traveling every weekend over the past six months for rehearsals, while maintaining eight-to-five jobs on the weekdays, illustrates the commitment of these Millennial and Generation X volunteers, who truly gave their time and talent to the endeavor. “The challenge we thought we would have ended up not being one at all,” remarked Remtulla. “The cast was always there, despite the fact that they’re all giving their time voluntarily.”
Speaking to if he had an opportunity to be a part of Stories, President Merchant said, “if I were to play a role, it would be the backstage crew. It was the dedication of so many volunteers who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to produce this magical experience.”
One of the many backstage workers is costume designer Ambreen Khan. Costumes are an important part of the play as it affects how the audience perceives and relates to a specific character. The costumes were made by her students in Karachi, Pakistan and then shipped to the USA. “These are more than just costumes,” she said. “They are representations of our community and its values. Moreover, we kept in mind the need for modesty and elegance.”
The Jamat felt emotional viewing this unique show. Reminiscing, Vice President of Council for the USA, Zahir Ladhani commented: “Coming from Uganda, it was beautiful to watch a similar story portrayed on stage. The raw emotion helped convey what the Jamat has gone through, not just with stories I was familiar with, but also ones I hadn’t heard before.”
For audience-member Ferin Dodhiya, it was an emotional and inspirational moment. “The stories portrayed in the show helped strengthen my faith even more by making me believe that, no matter what, the Imam is always with us, and he will get us through this.” A resident of Beacon, New York, she felt it was a “brilliant idea giving tribute to the people who have struggled for us.” She adds, “I learned the role and responsibilities of an individual murid and about pluralism.”
Stories was the culmination of talent—both on and off stage—that made the production possible. From the directors to the costume designer, medics, set designers, lighting and sound technicians, makeup artists and hairdressers, among many other technicians, each one played a critical role in order to produce a show of this caliber. The quality was certainly appreciated by the audience, as expressed by Muzammil Mukadam, who said, “The amazing technical aspects of this show added full-flavor to this Broadway-style production.”