Maysoon Zayid creates comedy at the intersection of varying aspects of her identity, including being Palestinian American and living with cerebral palsy. She discussed her work in a profile that The New York Times published online today (October 29).
“I want to get out there and be the image of the American you don’t think is American, and the Muslim you don’t think of when you think of a Muslim,” she said.
To that end, Zayid is developing a television show called “Can-Can” for ABC. The semi-autobigraphical family sitcom will star Zayid as a Muslim woman living with a disability and navigating friendships, love and hair metal while growing up in New Jersey.
Zayid, who also channels her perspective into comedy development work with refugees in the West Bank, told The Times that her career grew out of repeated instances of discrimination:
At college, her bubble burst. She went to Arizona State University on an academic scholarship, and on her first day in an English literature class, her professor stunned her by asking, “Can you read?” She majored in theater—her lifelong dream has been to appear on “General Hospital”—yet despite wowing teachers, she was never cast in school productions. Even when the theater department mounted a play about a girl with cerebral palsy, a nondisabled student was chosen over Zayid for the part.
“It was devastating, because I knew I was good,” Zayid said. “The girl who got it was a great actress. But why would anyone want to see her fake cerebral palsy, when I’m sitting right here?”
It was a light-bulb moment, and she realized that the movies she loved with disabled characters, like “Born on the Fourth of July,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Rain Man,” all had visibly nondisabled stars. She pursed acting after graduation, until a forthright acting coach told her she would never get cast, and ought to do a one-woman show. Zayid took comedy classes instead, began to get gigs, and after Sept. 11 started the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival with Dean Obeidallah. “The simplest way for me to describe Maysoon is fearless,” Obeidallah said.
Zayid expanded on this discrimination and the inauthentic depictions it produces:
While performances by, say, Joaquin Phoenix as a wheelchair-using cartoonist or Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking largely go unquestioned, and even lauded, by able-bodied people, Zayid said that for many people with disabilities, their acting looks cartoonish, exaggerated, offensive and inauthentic.
“You can put on makeup to look Asian or Latino or Black, but Black, Asian and Latino people know you’re not,” she said. “And disabled people watching their disabilities being poorly portrayed know it’s not them either.”
Visit NYTimes.com for more of Zayid’s story.