Under the amber lights of the Iguana Café, a glass of red wine in hand, Chicago-based actress Fawzia Mirza was in her element as she discussed details of her latest passion project, The Queen of My Dreams. The three-minute film short, which Mirza described as a "Bollywood drag-identity piece" is set to premiere March 22-24 at Outfest's Fusion, "the only LGBT people of color film festival of its kind anywhere in the world," according to its website.
The filmwhich Mirza wrote, produced and acted inexplores her experience growing up as a South Asian woman trying live up to the ideals set by Bollywood heroines. When asked what inspired her to tell this story, Mirza said, "For me, this was a way of embracing everything that I amwhich is a Muslim, South Asian, queer, sexy womanbut also a woman with really short hair. And how do I take on all of those things at the same time, and can I be all those things at the same time? And my answer is yeah. It's just that you may not always see it."
With a burgeoning career exploring Muslim, Queer and South Asian women's identity through performance, it may be surprising that Mirza has only been in the acting business seven years. Seated at the corner table in one of her favorite haunts ( she happily pointed out the live iguana scaling the alcove behind us ) , she was equal parts razor wit and measured consideration as she dished on her long journey to the acting scene.
"It's so cliché," said Mirza, smiling. "I liked performing for people and making people laugh when I was a kid but I grew up in a very strict, conservative Muslim family. When it came time to go to college for it, it was like, Be an English major, get a political science degree.' And then I went to law school."
It was in law school, ironically, that Mirza was bitten by the acting bug. "I did this thing called trial team," said Mirza. "You know, you're in the courtroom and you're giving opening statements and closing arguments and cross-examining witnesses. It was more like acting, and I liked that so much more than the lawyering part. It was like Law and Order. I was like, 'What is this? This is great!' "
After working as a litigator for two years at a downtown Chicago law firm, Mirza left the legal profession to act in Catharsis Productions' Sex Signals, a program on sexual-assault awareness. The show uses improv, humor and audience interaction to educate audiences on how to prevent sexual violence. Sex Signals recently began touring all branches of the military in addition to colleges. Of her work on the project, Mirza said, "It feels really wonderful to be doing these shows for these [ military ] men and women. They'll come up to you afterwards and say, 'Thank you for your work' and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? Thank you for what you guys do.'"
Over the next six years, Mirza would continue her work on Sex Signals while taking on a slew of projects that grappled with queer or Muslim identity. She was a frequent collaborator with Silk Road Theatre, a company focused on telling Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean stories. She can next be seen onstage in Theatre Seven's production of In The Heart of America, an epically poetic Gulf War drama in which she plays a Palestinian woman. In the 2011 independent feature film, Jamie and Jessie Are Not Together she played Jamie's lesbian lover, Ronda. In her newly launched web series, Keeping Up With Kam, she plays the eponymous, fictional, outcast lesbian Kardashian sister.
When asked if she had advice for other emerging queer artists, especially those coming out under potentially adverse familial circumstances, Mirza said, "I think it depends. I think it's tough. I think everyone's family situation is really different. I think the idea of coming out, to me, can also mean having a drink in front of my mom, which I still wouldn't do it at this age, because it's out of respect for her. So coming out has so many other layers to me."
As she moves forward, Mirza wants to focus on making more films while continuing to pursue education initiatives like Sex Signals. This March, she's collaborating with tello Films, a company in Chicago that makes online content for lesbians. Mirza said, "I think that's fantastic, because you could be in Pakistan and be like, 'I want learn about American lesbian stuff. Oh, here's a place to do it. Cool.'"
Currently, in the works is a feature film called 9/12 that Mirza is acting in and producing. "I get to play a strong Muslim woman," said Mirza. "She wears a head scarf, but we get to see her when she's not wearing a head scarf. And that, I think, is something you don't get to have that insight into. You don't see that on television. When a Muslim woman takes off her head scarf, what happens? Does the world burn?"
As she elaborated on the contents of her future film, another side of Fawzia Mirza became apparent. She sipped her wine, nodded in the direction of the iguana, and said with a smaile, "I'm just excitedbecause that's the kind of project I can show my mom."
Mirza is performing through April 1 in Theatre Seven's In The Heart of America ( see review, left ) at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Check out Mirza's new web series, "Keeping Up With Kam," at www.youtube.com/user/kamkardashian.