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Hatef**k explores the tempestuous relationship between two very different Muslim Americans
When she first started acting 20 years ago, Indian American Kavi Ladnier promised herself that she would not take on any reductive roles. No funny accents, no sex objects, no terrorists. And she didn't -- but her conviction came with a cost. "Looking back, if I had made those choices, I think my career would have probably had a quicker trajectory," she admits. "But I'm not sad that I made that decision."
The question of whether a bad representation of your culture is better than no representation at all, and the sacrifices artists have to make in order to work are issues Ladnier's been thinking about a lot lately. In fact, they're the main themes of the world-premiere play she's starring in: Hatef**k at WP Theater in a coproduction with Colt Coeur. In Rehana Lew Mirza's two-hander, Ladnier plays Layla, a professor and practicing Muslim, who begins a tumultuous romance with Imran (Sendhil Ramamurthy), a novelist who makes his living writing stories about Muslim terrorists.
Hatef**k isn't just about sex (though there's a fair amount of that); it's about two people who have markedly different outlooks on life. "On paper, these two characters look incredibly compatible," says Ladiner, "But they tell two different perspectives of the same experience." Whereas Layla wants more nuanced depictions of Muslim Americans in pop culture, Imran just wants to work and he'll take whatever opportunities he can get -- even if they require reinforcing problematic stereotypes.
Getting a chance to play a multifaceted Muslim American, even such a flawed one, was a no-brainer for Ramamurthy, who is also of Indian descent. "As an actor, I felt underrepresented for an extremely long time," he says, noting that, like Ladnier, he's said no to a lot of stereotypical roles over the years. "When this play came along exploring themes of underrepresentation and misrepresentation of a minority group, that really spoke to me."
Hatef**k alternates passionate moments of kissing and touching with intense arguments during its 90 emotionally charged minutes. "It's the most challenging thing I've done onstage, hands down," says Ramamurthy. "The level of commitment you have to have, and the level of comfort you have to have with each other is huge."
Luckily, Ramamurthy and Ladnier already knew each other a bit: They had worked together in a few episodes of NBC's sci-fi series Heroes a while back. Even so, Colt Coeur brought in an intimacy director, Judi Lewis Ockler, to make sure the performers were on the same page. According to Ramamurthy, the extra support was "so freeing. We reached a level of comfort so much faster." And it's not just about simulating sex acts. In one scene, Ramamurthy caresses Ladnier on her lower back, and though it seems so casual and spontaneous, it was staged by Ockler. Setting up every touch is essential so there are no mixed signals or crossed boundaries. "It's all choreographed and talked through," says Ramamurthy. "And before every single performance we have an intimacy call where we go through anything that could be interpreted as emotional or sexual step-by-step."
Adds Ladnier with a chuckle, "Our job is to make it look so natural that you go, oh wow that's really intimate."
Both performers are thrilled to be able to portray characters of color who are so complex emotionally, intellectually and erotically. "A role like this, to be able to just see an unapologetically strong, powerful, sexual woman, it feels very dreamlike," says Ladnier. "I don't want it to be a dream. I want it to be the norm where we get to see more roles and characters like this."
To read about a student's experience at Hatef**k, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Top image: Sendhil Ramamurthy and Kavi Ladnier in Hatef**k. Photos by Joan Marcus.