Mohammad Shehata Aims for a Color-Blind Stage
A Bay Area actor of Egyptian Muslim descent finds himself among a growing number of Middle Eastern and South Asian actors becoming more visible than ever in theater, film, and TV.
Mohammad Sheheta, left, in Romeo and Juliet.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Matley
Since moving to the Bay Area in 2015, actor Mohammad Shehata has played Prince Escalus in Romeo and Juliet, Happy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Pozzo in Waiting for Godot, and Romeo in a separate production of Romeo and Juliet.
That’s a good track record for any 23-year-old actor, and even more impressive given that Shehata, who was raised by Egyptian Muslim parents in Fresno, was playing roles traditionally reserved for white actors.
“This is a good time to be an actor of Middle Eastern descent,” Shehata said. “Just because the question is being asked: What is the role in society for a person who looks like me? How can the stage and screen reflect that?”
On TV and in film, Middle Eastern and South Asian actors are more visible than ever and increasingly not limited to playing terrorists, cabbies, and doctors. Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani wrote and stars in the summer’s box-office hit The Big Sick. Pakistani-British actor Riz Ahmed won Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for the HBO series The Night Of, and Indian-American sitcom star Aziz Ansari won an Emmy last year for writing Master of None.
In March 2015, Shehata was in his last term at UC San Diego when he saw a notice for a San Francisco Shakespeare Festival casting call. “They were auditioning, and I was in San Diego. So I took a 13-hour train to San Francisco, did a one-minute monologue, then hopped back on the train.”
He got the gig, started rehearsals while submitting term papers online, and played Prince Escalus and the servant Peter in Romeo and Juliet. “I don’t know if the director cast me based on the audition,” Shehata said, “or because she pitied me. It must’ve been strange seeing this raggedy-looking kid walk in with the pillow I’d slept on the train with [saying], ‘OK, I’m ready to do Shakespeare.’ ”
For the next two years, Shehata acted nonstop. He was in Guards at the Taj at the Capitol Stage in Sacramento, did Death of a Salesman, Waiting for Godot, and Rashomon with Ubuntu Theater Project in Oakland, and understudied a role in the Berkeley Rep/Seattle Rep co-production of Disgraced. When the actor he was understudying got cast in a TV role, Shehata replaced him for the final two weeks in Seattle.
“They housed me in this incredible apartment,” he said. “I had my own dressing room with the card on the door. I got to experience what it’s like to be treated as an actor at the top of your game.”
But when Shehata played a bomb-toting Russian radical in the Ross Valley Players production of Ladies of the Camellias in November 2015, things didn’t go so well. Marin Independent Journal critic Barry Willis praised Shehata’s acting (“dynamic and funny, with near-perfect timing”), but argued that his ethnicity made him wrong for the role.
“He doesn’t look remotely Russian,” Willis wrote. “In an age of color-blind casting, it is politically incorrect but absolutely essential to mention that his (presumably Iranian) ancestry makes his character too much like the ISIS fanatics and crazed jihadists that we see on every newscast.”
The play’s creative team was “stunned” by the review, Shehata recalled. His director, Julian Lopez-Morillas, “even had a few email exchanges with the reviewer that never went anywhere. I felt sort of powerless in the whole situation.” Shehata, for the record, has no Iranian blood.
One critic’s wrong-headed review didn’t sink Shehata’s passion for acting, or his determination to not be pigeon-holed. Reducing actors by color and ethnicity, he said, is wasteful and destructive. “And the result is actors internalizing their own commodification. My goal is to never internalize that way of thinking. I am person with something meaningful to say.”