Lahore, Pakistan - "It's all about me and I in America," says Umer Naru, elongating his vowels. He's a young director putting on the Neil Simon play "45 Seconds from Broadway" with high school drama students and recent graduates in Lahore, Pakistan. The play is about a talented, egocentric American playwright surrounded by aspiring directors and performers. To director Umer and lead actor Waleed Zaidi, Americans are a lot like the protagonist -- blunt, bright, but self-absorbed.
This applies both to the country, they say, which has selfishly pursued its own interests in Pakistan, and to Americans, who are as Umer says willfully "ignorant of the world." The former they have learned from parents and textbooks, the latter they know from Fox television broadcasts that find their way over here, and from relatives abroad. I try to dig further into politics and get a rebuff: "Look, America has done very little good here; they use us and we are then bombed," says Waleed. "We stay away from politics….We just live our lives."
As I watch them rehearse on the roof of a nearby primary school late at night -- to save money -- I see what they mean. These student actors drip with sweat as they squint at their scripts by the light of a billboard. They've fundraised for this play themselves over months, soliciting local sponsors. It's a labor of love.
With the help of their high school drama teacher, the students chose to put on a Neil Simon play. I was surprised; was Shakespeare losing ground? In Manchester, on the second day of my project, I also encountered young Simon devotees. I'm told the choice was driven by several factors: audiences are curious about Americans, the play poses fun, challenging accents to master, and then, perhaps, the play depicts America and an American character as the students imagine Americans -- oblivious to the world yet at the center of it; surrounded by dreamers yet pragmatic; mercilessly blunt yet kind at heart.
But again, the young stars remind me, the most important thing for them is not politics or international relations but exploring their own individual talent. "We are trying to be original. See what we can do….Pakistan has talent that is raw," says Umer. Theater, and America, encourage just this exploration and shameless expression of the self.
Umer enacts America's narcissism with flapping hands, cocked head and a lofty gait: "'When I discovered myself, it was me who thought that I was good, I was funny.'" "That's how it goes with Americans," he says, refering to his lines in the play. "They're pompous. They don't look outside themselves."
Watching the bustling streets below, the director says, "But there are quite pompous people over here too….The difference is they're not as self-aware as the Americans. We just dismiss them."
Wait, self-aware? This sounds like a compliment.
He explains, while the arrogant of Lahore's elite -- bloated with inherited money -- are fixated on material displays of success like cars, phones, and clothes, the arrogant American is more often, relatively speaking, fixated on his or her own personal talents.
A haughty pose is never a good one, but at least the American often has some substance to it, he says. From dreams and hard work, a self-centered posture emerges.
There is always the lure of Diva-dom, Umer suggests, but as his budding Pakistani actors believe, to get there you've got to work for it.