RONA: Oh yes, I’ve heard lots of things about you…
Those were the first words that Rona Siddiqui uttered to me. When someone says they’ve heard lots of things about you it’s usually not good, right? Maybe it’s just me because these words are usually followed by an insult or painfully drawn out story.
However, this was not the case.
I had also heard a lot of things about Rona. Even though we shared mutual friends and worked in theatre, we had never met. Everyone in the MENASA community (who did musical theatre) had worked with her in some fashion and even though I kept hearing her name, I was starting to doubt her existence. At the time, she was an enigma. Now she is a friend.
I remember walking to my first music rehearsal with her. I was running late. Like any actor in NYC, I had a heavy bag — full of various outfits for auditions and a music binder full of sheet music.
I ran inside (probably sweating, which wasn’t cute) and in my type-A, Capricorn-like sensibility, profusely apologized for being tardy. Rona was calm, collected and not bothered.
Rona was the musical director for a concert (more on that later) whilst I was a nervous actor woefully unprepared to sing my song.
I kept thinking: I hope I don’t embarrass myself in front of this woman.
Rona greeted me with a warm smile.
VISHAAL: Hi, I’m Vishaal. Nice to meet you!
RONA: Oh yes, I’ve heard lots of things about you.
VISHAAL: Oh no. What’d I do?
RONA: No, I’ve heard you’re on the hunt for the best burrito.
I paused, slightly startled.
How did she know this? We had never met but if you know me well, you KNOW that I love food. No, I really love food.
And oftentimes, I’d ask people: “Where can I get the best (insert food item)?”
And at the time, I was on the hunt for the best burrito.
VISHAAL: How did you know that?
Turns out, one of our mutual friends had mentioned this quest of mine to Rona and as a connoisseur of burritos herself, she readily had an answer.
RONA: It is, sadly, in my hometown of Redlands on State Street. It is a tiny take-out hut called Cuca’s. I make my mom bring me a Cuca’s burrito when she picks me up from the airport. She puts it on a baking tray and brings me at least 7 hot sauces. She is a very, very good mother.
At that moment, I knew we were going to be friends.
A few years ago, I was developing a musical project and was really interested in having a MENASA music director for it. I was having a tough time finding someone in my own circles so I did what anyone else would do: posted on Facebook.
I posted the request and within minutes, no less than three people tagged: Rona Siddiqui.
I kept thinking to myself, how do I not know this person?
RONA: I am a Halfghan. My dad is from Afghanistan and my mom is Italian.
Rona grew up in Redlands, California, and like most MENASA kids growing up in the States, doing everything was in her DNA. She enjoyed school, participated in spelling bees and played soccer.
Pretty normal stuff. However, family life could be pretty complex.
RONA: It was a strict, conservative household with my older sister getting the brunt of the “oppressive regime” and my younger brother getting the most freedom (because he was a boy). I even ran away a couple times because I felt forced into a religion (Islam) that I didn’t believe in. I was angry and misunderstood like most teenagers, but I was also very much loved. My family is like most. Complicated, infuriating but also fiercely supportive and loving. I would not be where I am today without them.
However, it was through these experiences that she discovered her love for music.
I loved all things musical theatre from a super young age, which I thought was totally normal. I was in every school and community production.
Her first role was in Alice and Wonderland and while she was thrilled to be on stage, the production didn’t go as planned.
RONA: I was double cast with my best friend, Amy Armstrong. She got to do the evening show for the parents, and I had to do the matinee for the students and I was DEVASTATED!
Even though things didn’t go as planned, she was still obsessed with music and started playing piano at the age of 4.
RONA: I was all about pop music and classical music. My parents couldn’t keep me away from the piano. My sister was taking lessons, and every time she would practice, I couldn’t wait for her to finish so I could go play everything I just heard. I was obsessed. I’m very fortunate that I had parents who had the means and desire to support that passion.
However, one thing that Rona didn’t love: Afghan music. Rona’s identity towards her Afghan heritage was similar to my own. I am Indian-American but there was a period of time where I actively didn’t want to be Indian. I distanced myself from the culture, festivals, food and even the art.
This is a common thread amongst many MENASA kids who are brought up in America. We long to stand out and yet oftentimes refuse to celebrate our wonderfully complex, yet vibrant communities.
Rona’s journey was similar. And even though music was her passion, Afghan music was not.
RONA: I hated Afghan music growing up. The whiny voices and droning harmonium…totally headache inducing.
However, things change.
Fast forward to 2018. This is when Rona and I met, rehearsing for a wonderful concert called I Am Not Your Terrorist. The concert featured a cast and crew of talented MENASA performers, spotlighting the idea that we aren’t the caricatures that you often see in film, TV and theatre.
I got permission to rewrite Kooman and Diamond’s hilarious song Random Black Girl for a MENASA audience but had never performed it live.
Let’s just say doing a cover of a song (albeit altered) that Tony Winner Patina Miller originated….was terrifying. But Rona made this process easy and utterly joyful.
We finished rehearsing and we chatted about representation in the industry. We commiserate on the industry’s lack of MENASA representation, particularly in theatre and dissected what it might take for this to change. Our goals were very similar.
RONA: I want us to be seen for who we are and not typecast as terrorists or victims or cabbies. I want to remove the burden of having to preface or explain the art that rises from our personal experiences to an audience who wants everything foreign handed to them on a silver platter. I want the range of our looks to be accepted without question. I want to celebrate our beauty. I don’t want to be the token in the room, but have a room built out from our own creative centers. And can we get a few MENASA people in Aladdin please?
And the concert did just that! Not only was it a success, but it was such a joyful process. To be in a room full of talented creatives who also understand your upbringing and background is a rarity for the MENASA arts community. And it proved to be an unexpectedly transformative experience for Rona.
RONA: Working on that showcase was the first time I felt part of the MENASA community because previously, I assumed I wouldn’t be accepted. I’m HALF Afghan. I don’t speak another language, I was born in America…I felt like I wasn’t legit enough to hold the MENASA card, but the comradery I felt with every person on that show was overwhelming. It was the start of many wonderful friendships and collaborations.
It was through art that Rona found her voice and embraced her heritage — a journey I understand quite well. Even as a kid, I’d watch Bollywood films and be entranced. They are the reason that I am a performer to this day. It was my “Aha” moment.
I asked Rona if she had any “Aha” moments and she laughed:
RONA: I got into bed one night with my Walkman, popped in the first of TWO cassettes, cranked the volume, and then…”DUUUUUUN DUHDUHDUHDUH DUUUUN” That is the opening organ theme of The Phantom of the Opera. I was dumbfounded. Tears streamed down my face from the power of that sound. And then, so you can make fun of me even more, I was going through my mom’s old albums one day and found a double album called Jesus Christ Superstar. I popped it on and sat on the floor reading the lyrics and listening to the whole thing AGAIN! ALW! Come on!
VISHAAL: So is it safe to say Phantom is your favorite musical?
RONA: Oh my tastes are much more refined now. I act like a snob and I roll my eyes if people say Phantom is their favorite musical. I am not proud of that and I need to work on it. But little kid Rona connected to these shows in a way that sucked me into the art form of telling stories through music. I could think of nothing more powerful.
Fast forward to a few years later.
It’s been quite a strange year for the arts. Artists are struggling and the industry is in a strange place. But it feels like hope is around the corner.
I haven’t seen Rona in a year and we make a plan to catch up on Zoom.
We chat about the business.
We chat about dating.
We chat about missing travel.
We chat about music.
We chat about being Trekkies.
We chat about how if she were stuck on a deserted island, she would want infinite amounts of Boba and as many magical realism books as possible by the likes of Murakami, Allende, Morrison, and of course a radio to play all the Afghan music she now adores.
The important questions.
But lastly, we chat about how this year has oddly been inspiring, in spite of all the hardships. I ask Rona:
VISHAAL: Final question!
RONA: Uh, oh.
VISHAAL: Don’t mess this up (with sarcasm of course).
RONA: Thanks for the support!
VISHAAL: What kind of art do you want to create?
She sits back and thinks.
RONA: I find it exciting to explore human emotional landscapes. I feel like that self-knowledge is at the crux of making the world a better place. Pain and suffering is caused by people who are cut off from their own emotional worlds and therefore cannot be in touch with those of others. They seek happiness in false places. When the interior world is in a state of chaos, that gets projected onto the exterior world. I like to examine all that at the roots. The art that stood out to me as a kid was the art I got to get inside of. Literally ANY piece of music or play that was put in front of me, I entered whole-heartedly. I wanted all the worlds and all the feelings they brought no matter what. I never really judged. So I want to do more of that.
That, my friends, is the answer from a down-to-earth, witty and brilliantly ingenious human, who I’m thrilled to call my friend — Rona Siddiqui.
I never thought a friendship would exist because of a mutual love of art and, most importantly, burritos.
What a treat. ■
About the Author
Vishaal Reddy is an actor, writer, and producer from Tennessee and based in NYC. He received his undergraduate degree at Boston University, studying Business Administration and Theater. He was recently selected as one of 2019 Tribeca Film Festival Creator N.O.W. creators. Upon moving to NYC, he was a part of numerous Off-Broadway plays and musicals, while also delving into the television/film world. His recent credits include The Punisher (Netflix), Bull (CBS), and Big Dogs (Amazon). Feeling frustrated with the industry’s portrayal of Indian characters, he started writing and producing his own screenplays and sketches. He will be launching his production company this year, focusing on the stories of South Asians and people in the LGBTQ community.