Wajahat Ali describes himself as an ‘accidental playwright’ that had the ‘fortuitous good luck’ by creating a successful first play that then enabled him to embark on a career as a writer.
This first play, The Domestic Crusaders, is an award-winning piece of theatre that has been performed in America and around the globe, including Off-Broadway in New York. In 2010 it was the first play to be published by the American literary journal McSweeney’s. Eight years after its 2004 premiere it continues to be performed and discussed, a successful run that is clearly due to more than simple good fortune.
The Domestic Crusaders is a slice-of-life in two acts, focussing on a Muslim Pakistani-American family of six who meet at home to celebrate the 21st birthday of its youngest member. Sparks fly among the three generations, culminating in a battle as each family member struggles to assert their opinions while maintaining family unity. It remains relevant almost a decade after it was first produced – a situation that Ali finds a sad reflection of the state of affairs in the US.
“The play, from a purely current affairs standpoint, does quite bluntly and honestly discuss the post-9-11 or rather post-post 9-11 world that we all occupy as global citizens,” Ali says. “The intersection of language, national security, religion, identity and politics that have emerged from that collision, this generation has quite literally inherited. I wrote the scars and memory of that event.”
The topicality of the play is just one facet of its success. Its humanity – and the fact that it makes people laugh, Ali points out – is perhaps the true reason behind its wide acclaim.
“The play is a universal family drama told through a culturally specific lens,” Ali says. “I think I’ve been successful because when you strip away these layers, people see universal emotions and universal family tensions and relationships.”
As a writer, Ali cares about telling stories that demonstrate our shared humanity, and theatre offers a rich tradition that enables him to reach an audience in a profound way.
“Playwriting is the universal storytelling genre, method, technique. A few people in one location, forced to confront and talk to one another. That’s a play,” he says, noting that every culture in the world has theatre. “You do it for an audience in a very immersive, interactive, visceral way. It’s very intimate and it’s almost uncomfortable. But if you pull off your job, the audience is able to see a reflection of their reality.”
Despite its tradition, the motivations and techniques of modern playwrights are fresh.
“The modern playwright’s role is the passing of the baton,” Ali says. “All the stories that have been told, there is a new way of telling them. Stories of families have been told before but unfortunately we haven’t heard the stories of all families, which is sad, especially in this modern day and age where there is no such thing as local anymore.”
The local becomes the national and international with the push of a button, and this hyper-connected new media world is changing the face of live theatre. “It’s the theatre of the internets,” Ali says. “But it’s just a new way of sharing stories.”
As a writer, Ali has embraced these digital opportunities, working as a new media journalist and commentator. However, his current project has brought him back to scripts, though in a new way; he is working on a HBO tv pilot with co-writer Dave Eggers, the founding editor of McSweeney’s.
Although Ali never considered writing for TV, once suggested to him it seemed like a natural fit with his playwriting skills. Both mediums are about telling a story, and both need to engage and sustain an audience across time.
“I realised that I’m telling a story,” Ali says. “I have to sustain the audience’s interest, I’m taking them on a journey, and there’s an arc. They have to invest in the characters and invest the emotions, and care about them.”
So while writing for TV is very different because it has its own format and accepted structures, pared down to its core it’s all about these base storytelling techniques. The questions a writers asks of his TV show reflect universal literary concerns:
“Are there characters that are interesting? Will the audience watching at home or on their ipod invest in the characters? Will they be willing to go on this journey? Can you sustain their interest and involvement for a 52 minute time span and do it repeatedly week by week for twelve weeks? That’s it.”
Although figuring out the limitations and freedoms of writing for TV was a challenge, Ali’s early grounding in playwriting helped. A writer has got to be able to deliver, and being able to do so often comes down to experience.
“My experience of producing and writing and publishing Domestic Crusaders gave me the ingredients, the confidence and the fundamental tools to dive into this brave new world of TV writing,” Ali says.
For someone who describes himself as ‘never meant to be a playwright’, theatre has nonetheless led Wajahat Ali to a writing career. As a writer his goal is to share his ideas, and hopes they will continue to ignite discussions and effect social change.
This piece was first published in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair Show Daily.