by Shereen Ahmed
In my home, My Fair Lady was the movie-night staple. Every time I popped my VHS into the TV, I felt instantly transported to early 20th century London. The soaring orchestrations of Lerner and Loewe burst through my bedroom and it was transformed into a glorious study. I twirled endlessly to “I Could Have Danced All Night,” my tight curls flying across my face in a frizzy mess. My mother can confirm, I danced all night, even after several attempts to “GO. TO. BED!” Sorry, Mom.
I was twelve years old, and even though I knew every line and every song by heart – I anxiously sat on the edge of my seat as Eliza confronted each challenge with striking determination, courage, and wit, plowing gracefully through them one by one. It was a masterpiece.
Meanwhile, every Sunday, I was shuffled to the local Mosque, where, just like Eliza, I spent hours reciting my vowels – only for me, they were in Arabic. If I ever felt the urge to crumble in defeat, I would channel Eliza’s perseverance. Memorize a 42-verse surah from the Quran in Arabic? Even the most difficult challenges felt conquerable. It was safe to say those few – okay, numerous – movie-nights spent in Covent Garden had a major impact on me.
Fast forward a couple of years and, much to my parents’ distress, I was on my way to the big city to follow my dreams of performing on the Great White Way. Well, let’s just say it wasn’t exactly a cake-walk.
After waiting countless hours in cattle-calls to sing eight bars, being told politely that “perhaps Advanced Ballet isn’t the appropriate level for you” in dance class (I should have taken the hint when the pointe shoes broke out: I was wearing gym socks), and being stereotyped out of most, if not all, open calls I attended, I needed to be reminded of my ‘why.’ So when a friend suggested to me to attend the My Fair Lady open call, I went on the whim of frustration. I expected nothing but the rare opportunity to sing. For me. It was for Broadway after all. There was no way in hell I was booking that.
Then there was a callback. “Cool! More practice!” I thought.
Next thing I know, I’m sobbing on the floor with my best friend whose couch I was sleeping on for a couple of weeks by that point. I was going to be an ensemble member of the Lincoln Center Theater revival of My Fair Lady. It was truly a dream come true.
I soaked in all of its glory. Any chance I had I was offstage, watching anxiously just like I had as a child. Only, it wasn’t on VHS. It was eight shows a week for over a year.
When the opportunity came for me to understudy the leading role, it was brought to my attention that in the show’s entire Broadway and West End history, Eliza Doolittle had never been portrayed by a Middle Easterner. Ever. My Fair Lady premiered over 60 years ago, while Pygmalion, the play the musical is based upon, premiered over 100 years ago. So I wondered, “Where do I fit?” This prompted a journey for me I never anticipated.
Growing up Muslim and Egyptian in a post-9/11 world was, for lack of a better term, hard. Sure, there were a couple of protesters outside the Mosque nearly every Sunday, and sometimes I’d be referred to as the ‘terrorist’ in school, but eventually discrimination became the norm. Once my family was refused service at a local restaurant for being one of ‘them.’ This refusal was on an Islamic holiday, Eid-al-Fitr, the last day of Ramadan. Fear-mongering was rampant in a post-9/11 United States, and blatant, entitled discrimination was not far behind. I was a part of a community that was outcast and encountered systemic discrimination on a daily basis.
My Fair Lady became my outlet as a child. I found solace in Eliza. She confronted discrimination I also faced – and broke free despite her status as a working-class woman in Edwardian England. It is through Eliza’s determination for a better life that she challenges the restraints society placed on her. Through the medium of speech, she is able to climb up the ranks of class.
Although My Fair Lady examines the social inequalities of early 20th century England, this show feels eerily familiar to 21st century US, intertwining class, race, and gender into one potent revival. What better time to revive this show than now?
It is simply not enough to examine class without also understanding the intersection of race and gender and how these three pillars of discrimination can alter the human experience. If Eliza were Middle Eastern, would her experience be different? Possibly.
Lincoln Center Theater’s production of My Fair Lady is more diverse than any other production of the musical seen in Broadway and West End history. It is breaking ground in diversity, inclusiveness and equal opportunity by opening a once sealed door. After more than 60 years since the original show’s premiere, they are sending an important message to those whose hope for their own future in the theatre could be impacted by the fact that this barrier has finally been broken. That makes LCT a true pioneer in changing the realm of American Theatre, and I couldn’t feel more humbled and grateful for the opportunity to perform in my dream show, in my dream role. A role that I felt was never an option for me before this production.
I may not fit the historical ‘mold,’ but Eliza is a heroine for the 21st century. Her story still rings honest and true today, challenging the social institutions that perpetuate discrimination. That is what makes her story so timeless.
So consider this a love-letter to My Fair Lady. Or perhaps a “thank you” to Lincoln Center Theater for finally opening the door. Either way, the once impossible challenge feels entirely possible. If only twelve-year-old Shereen could see her now. She would never go to bed.