It’s surprising to learn that Atlanta’s most intriguing and confident young theatrical artist grew up feeling like a total outsider. But Marium Khalid can tell you that being a Pakistani child in Bangladesh wasn’t easy. “My mom says my brother and I grew up the day we walked out of the airport,” she says.
Khalid was about 10 years old when she and her family arrived in Bangladesh for her father’s work in the textile business, which had him moving from country to country throughout her childhood. Although the family settled into a posh building in a fine neighborhood with a mixture of international residents, the armed guards all around and the protective bars on the windows were a constant reminder of some of the hard truths of living in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Wounds from the bloody, scarring 1971 war between Bangladesh and Pakistan were still evident. Pakistanis were openly hated, and every aspect of daily life had its potential dangers. Angry glares on the street, often from men with machetes, were a common occurrence, and Khalid says she even had classmates who were kidnapped. At school, she says, teachers were detached and inattentive toward her, and she had few friends.
Then one day the teacher was looking for a singer. Khalid raised her hand and said, “I can sing.” The teacher replied curtly that she was looking for someone who could sing in Bengali, and Khalid insisted she could do it. “I remember I got up there and I sang the song,” she recalls. “It was just this beautiful moment where the class didn’t see me as anything but a voice that was singing. It was the first time I ever saw any of my classmates smile at me. They clapped and cheered. I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to sing, I want to be onstage.’ It was incredible.”
Khalid, 27, who says she still tends to feel like something of an outsider wherever she goes, finds a sense of belonging in performing, singing and telling stories as a founding member of Saiah, the Atlanta-based performing arts group she helms with her husband and fellow Kennesaw State University drama graduate Phillip Justman. Saiah takes its name from an Urdu-language word for an oasis-like spot of canopy shade.
Khalid was a primary creative force behind the 2011 edge-bending production “City of Lions and Gods,” a group-written project based on the experiences of her great-grandmother, writer Noor-us-Sabah Begum, during the struggle for Pakistani independence. The small show, funded on a shoestring and performed by its four creators at the Goat Farm Arts Center, was a critical and audience hit. ArtsATL described it as “great, smart, original theater,” and it eventually earned the top spot on our annual list of outstanding Atlanta theatrical productions.
The group’s next project, the ambitious “Rua | Wülf ” in spring 2012, sent audience members migrating around the Goat Farm’s evocative complex of crumbling Victorian former industrial buildings for a dark, adult retelling of the “Little Red Riding Hood” story. The play, penned and directed by Khalid, was another popular success; closing weekend saw scalpers selling tickets outside the venue, an anomaly for independent Atlanta theatrical productions. The show was voted Best Play by the readers of Creative Loafing.
Saiah’s most recent production, a roving retelling of “Moby-Dick,” was inventively staged at the 60,000-square-foot Lifecycle Building Center warehouse in southwest Atlanta. Immediately after the run of “Moby-Dick,” this past May, the group took “City of Lions and Gods” to the Prague Fringe Festival, where a reviewer for Prague TV gave it five stars and praised both Khalid’s performance and her “sensitive and nuanced direction.”
“I think our goal is to be able to tell stories and always be doing it in a way that’s not stale,” says Khalid. “We don’t rule out anything: film, music, theater, documentaries or blending all of them.”
The drive to perform has always stayed with her, even as her family moved from place to place. She estimates that her family moved with her father’s business about once every one-and-a-half years during her youth: Pakistan, Bangladesh, England, the United Arab Emirates and then the United States when she was about 13: first New York, then Peachtree City and ultimately Marietta, where the family finally put down roots.
“My brother and I were obsessed with ‘The Wonder Years’ before we came here,” she says. “We thought that was America. When we landed in New York, we went to the suburbs and I was like, ‘Where are we?’ Everything was gray, and no one was out in the street playing baseball like on the show.”
The American school system also was a shock to Khalid, who was accustomed to very strict discipline in the classroom; students were even expected to stand up with they spoke to their teacher. “I remember walking into middle-school home room, having a girl sitting next to me with her legs up on the desk, playing with her belly-button ring,” she says.
Performing always provided a sense of belonging, and she knew early on that she wanted to be in theater. Her studies at Kennesaw State, where she went in order to major in drama, didn’t always go smoothly. As a freshman, a drama professor told her she should change majors. He told her, “You won’t be an ingenue, you won’t be the best friend, and you’re not strong enough to be the villain. You’re not obnoxious or loud enough for musical theater. I don’t know where you belong.” It was a disheartening moment for Khalid: “I thought, ‘My God, I’m doomed.’ ”
In the end, the harsh advice proved formative. “I think it hindered a lot of confidence in my own abilities,” she says. “But now that I look back, if it wasn’t for that cruelness in his words, I wouldn’t have stepped back and said, ‘What is it I need to do?’ It really is part of how we work. We don’t sit around and list the things we can’t do. We start with, what is it we can do?”
“Terminus,” Saiah’s next project, will certainly test what the group can do. Appearing next spring, it will be a large, immersive theatrical experience based on the Civil War, inspired by Richard Adams’ “Watership Down,” specifically its story of a search for home. “We’re obsessing about it right now,” Khalid says.
As for whether Atlanta itself is now “home,” she is uncertain. She says she feels like a feather in the wind from her nomadic existence growing up.
“We have moments we just love this city and we’re so inspired by the history and by the people. And then there are those moments you put your heart and blood and soul into something, and then people aren’t coming. And then you’re like, maybe there’s somewhere else we need to go.”
The one thing she’s sure of is that the work is what matters most. “I think one of the things I realized this year is that I’m not loyal to any place; I’m loyal to the work,” she declares. “I work project to project.”