Arab stand-up and disabled-rights activist Maysoon Zayid is set to inspire in Abu Dhabi this week
Maysoon Zayid: Comic with can-do calibre
Maysoon Zayid has already taught two guest lectures, given a half-hour interview and been briefly trapped in New York University Abu Dhabi’s underground parking garage by the time early evening rolls around. With her make-up washed off and hair up, she is wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Angry Crip” and is ready to get down to business in the stand-up workshop she is leading Monday night, yalla-ing one of a half-dozen tentative, wannabe comics on stage.
“Come on. Come on. We only have three hours,” she says. “Unless you are disabled, then I’m sorry.”
Zayid, a New Jersey-born Palestinian comic, activist, writer and actress, is a force to be reckoned with.
She has earned more than 14 million views for her top-rated 2014 Ted Talk I’ve Got 99 Problems… Palsy is Just One.As part of her work promoting Arab comics, she launched the successful New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, with Dean Obeidallah, now in its 14th year. She regularly headlines comedy tours in the US, tours internationally and is in Abu Dhabi to perform two shows for the public at NYUAD on Wednesday and Thursday, and a third show at Ajman University on Friday, a partnership between the two universities.
Now, after years of pursuing her craft, fighting to “mainstream” all the things she is – “fluffy”, disabled, Muslim, Arab, female – she is hard at work on If I Can Can.
It is a loosely autobiographical anthology television series she spent seven years developing.
The title is a direct homage to her late father, who pushed her far beyond the expected limits of her cerebral palsy, the result of lost oxygen during her botched delivery.
“When I was born, the doctor said that I would never walk,” Zayid explains. “And I want to be very clear: there is no shame in not walking. But my father knew I would be straddling a life between the US and Palestine, and he was worried about my functionality, so he was determined to teach me how to walk. And his mantra to cheer me on was: ‘You can do it, yes, you can can’.”
The show was picked up by the NBC Universal subsidiary Hazy Mills Productions, one half of which is Sean Hayes, who plays Jack on NBC’s popular – and this month, rebooted – sitcom Will & Grace.
Zayid is thrilled to have on board a lead writer who is both Muslim and a woman, Iranian-American Joanna Quraishi.
When If I Can Can screens in the US next year, Zayid will be the first disabled woman to play a leading role on American television, as well as the kind of Muslim that audiences in the country are not used to.
“I’m a devout Muslim and I’ve studied the Quran and, you know, I identify as Muslim. You don’t see [Muslim] women who look like me,” she explains. “Even in the movements, the marches, the Muslim women you see, it’s always the hijab. I wanted someone who was born in the US, who was disabled, who was Muslim, who was this, who was that, but in the middle she was like Carrie from Sex and the City, without the sex.”
Mainstreaming people with disabilities in the entertainment industry is a cause that Zayid has been pushing for 20 years and one that she highlighted brilliantly in her Ted Talk. After getting a “sweet scholarship during a time of affirmative action” to study theatre Arizona State University, and doing everything there she could, she didn’t get any parts. That included the lead in And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson, which is about a girl with cerebral palsy.
“I went racing to the head of the theatre department, crying hysterically like someone just shot my cat, to ask her why,” Zayid recounts in the talk. “And she said it was because they didn’t think I could do the stunts. I said: ‘Excuse me if I can’t do the stunts, neither can the character’.”
Last year, the Boston-based Ruderman Family Foundation released a study that found that while the largest minority in the world is the 20 per cent of people with disabilities, they are represented in just two per cent of the images seen on American television.
Despite such depressing statistics, Zayid thinks the situation is changing rapidly.
“I’m seeing articles left and right about authenticity and actors playing disabled people on television,” she says. “I’ve seen [non-disabled] people who took roles to play a disabled part go back and turn down the role and say ‘I’m no longer doing it’ and that’s what we want. We want [non-disabled] actors to say ‘no’ to these roles. Because as long as famous actors want to play these parts and win Oscars, we’re never going to convince producers to cast authentically.”
Last year marked a breakthrough in the US, with the launch of the ABC show Speechless. Now in its second season, the show’s male lead is played by Micah Fowler, who has cerebral palsy, is non-verbal and in a wheelchair.
“It’s life-changing for the American public to see a non-verbal character and understand that non-verbal doesn’t mean he’s a baby, that he’s intelligent, that he behaves his age, that he has academic prowess,” Zayid says. “These are things the general public doesn’t know.”
Work is ongoing to make auditions and theatre programmes more accessible, and also to get people with disabilities working in a variety of positions behind the camera. That includes writers, because as Zayid explains, “when non-disabled people write disabled characters, they write them in such a stereotypical way”.
Yet for all the advances, this year, ABC took “about 500 steps back”, Zayid says, with The Good Doctor, a show about an autistic character played by non-autistic actor Freddie Highmore.
“He is a walking stereotype and it is so offensive,” she says.
In addition to If I Can Can, Zayid also has a docu-series in development called Comedy Therapy, in which she travels far and wide to teach stand-up comedy to people who have survived trauma, including a sexual-violence survivor, someone who lost their partner to suicide and another who lost limbs in a drunk-driving accident.
She is also an instructor at Arizona State University, and has a weekly YouTube series, Advice You Don’t Want to Hear (sample: “Marriage is a racket. You need to put it off as long as you can.”).
She also runs her own charity, Maysoon’s Kids, which is devoted to “mainstreaming” Palestinian children with disabilities into public schools – in the same way that her parents fought for her to be.
“When I started school in America, the school wanted to reject me and send me to a school specifically for children with Down syndrome,” she says. “They just didn’t have a comprehension of what cerebral palsy was. I slur my speech. I walk differently. They assumed I wasn’t able to be academically inclined.”
With a booming career, activism, husband and a beloved calico Scottish Fold cat named Beyoncé (who travels with her owner everywhere in the US and has her own section on www.maysoon.com), life for Zayid these days requires “a lot of balancing”.
But the spectre of rejection remains, most recently from a publisher responding to chapters written for a proposed memoir, which the comic spins into a laugh with trademark humour.
“She said: ‘Your story lacks perseverance.’ And I have it in an email.”
Maysoon Zayid is performing at the Red Theatre at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Centre, on Wednesday at 8pm in Arabic and Thursday at 8pm in English. She will also perform at Ajman University on Friday at 7.30pm. All tickets are sold out, but standby seats may be available. Visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org for information