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Why Kimberly Senior enjoys helming shows that raise tough questions about our multicultural society
At first glance, Aasif Mandvi's Sakina's Restaurant at Audible's Minetta Lane Theatre and Eleanor Burgess' The Niceties at Manhattan Theatre Club don't seem to have much in common. The former is a revival of a 20-year-old solo show in which the longtime Daily Show correspondent portrays a family of Indian immigrants in New York City. The latter is a new two-hander by an emerging playwright about a black student and her veteran white college professor locking horns over the presentation of American history. But dig a little deeper and you'll start to find thematic echoes as both productions deal with what it's like to be a person of color in a white world.
The shows also share a director, Kimberly Senior, who's known for helming provocative plays that explore the challenges of multiculturalism. But as a white Jewish woman, she admits that sometimes her perspective on these types of stories is questioned. "I went through some of the same pushback when I directed Ayad Akhtar's Disgraced in seven different productions, including on Broadway," says Senior, who's based in Chicago. "But I find it odd that no one ever asks me about my qualifications when I direct a play about the Irish or any other group. What I bring to the table when I tackle any play is my empathy and intelligence. Plus, being an outsider often allows me to ask questions of everyone involved."
Senior was interested in working on Sakina's Restaurant and The Niceties for a number of reasons. "I am very passionate about the whole subject of identity politics, in part because my dad is actually Syrian, which is its own sort of immigrant experience, although he staunchly considers himself white," she says. "And both plays also talk about power structures and generational clashes, especially The Niceties, which really addresses how older people perceive millennials and vice versa. I feel strongly that these are issues we should all be talking about."
Senior is confident in her ability to handle the nuances of these works in part because she seeks out other viewpoints. "On both plays, I hired practically all-women creative teams along with many people of color; it was so important to me to diversify those rooms," she says. "It was particularly important to me on The Niceties, because I didn't want Jordan Boatman [the 21-year-old African-American actress making her New York stage debut] to feel like she had to carry the burden of speaking for all people of color."
Despite the topical overlaps, Senior says that she approached the projects quite differently. She's known Mandvi for years, having directing him in Disgraced at Lincoln Center in 2012, and his script for Sakina's Restaurant remains largely unchanged, making it a period piece. Meanwhile, The Niceties is new and still evolving. Senior has been with the play throughout its development, originally helming it at West Virginia's Contemporary American Theater Festival in 2017 with a different cast, and then directing it at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company earlier this year with Boatman and Lisa Banes, who've made the move to New York.
"Eleanor and I have been working together on the script together for more than a year," Senior says. "In fact, we're adding lines here up to the last minute -- and that might still happen the next time we do the play" at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre in January. "Yes, The Niceties is deliberately set before Trump's election in 2016. But the political climate changes every day and sometimes we both feel the need to adjust the play's lines to reflect that. I think that's part of our responsibility as artists."
Top image: Aasif Mandvi in Sakina's Restaurant. Photo by Lisa Berg.