Sandy Huffaker for The New York Times
Rehana Mirza and Michael Lew were married in the garden of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.
By ROB DAVIS
Published: April 29, 2011
BEFORE the two young playwrights fell for each other, they first fell for each other’s prose.
It was fall 2005, and Michael Lew and Rehana Mirza had just joined the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, a company of Asian-American playwrights in Manhattan.
Every week they brought in fresh pages to read, and bounced ideas off colleagues. Ms. Mirza, from Bridgewater, N.J., had noticed Mr. Lew, who is from San Diego, from the first day, when he arrived late, cruising in on a skateboard.
They briefly introduced themselves to the group that day, but not to each other. Not until their third meeting did they interact. And even then, it happened as feedback, not conversation.
Ms. Mirza seemed so quiet during the weekly workshops, Mr. Lew thought. But her writing shouted.
She had presented part of a new play, “The Good Muslim.” The Pakistani woman at its center fell in love with the United States, with her freedom here, but slowly lost her moral compass. The writing spoke to Mr. Lew. The dialogue and emotion felt so fresh. Ms. Mirza had humanized Islamophobia and sharply jabbed at proselytizers of American ideals.
“That just blew my mind,” said Mr. Lew, 29, a magna cum laude Yale graduate. Still, he had questions and suggestions. How had her two characters connected? How had two so-different people decided to move in together? Ms. Mirza, now 32, recalled being surprised that he had been so engaged by it.
She was just as intrigued by Mr. Lew’s work. Her creative spark so often meant drawing on her half-Pakistani, half-Filipina heritage and speaking her mind through her writing. So his play “A Better Babylon” shocked her.
Set during the Vietnam War at the University of California, Berkeley, it told a story based on Mr. Lew’s parents, Wilbur and Bertha, who grew up poor and passed up protests for medical school. Protest, Mr. Lew believed, was an upper-class privilege. Not being involved — choosing career over conscience — was O.K.
“It ripped my brain out of my head and threw it back in upside down,” Ms. Mirza said. How could not being involved be O.K.?
She wanted more, so as they debated the play in the workshops she pushed Mr. Lew to make the characters’ love story less cute and more three-dimensional. It would be better, she told him, if the protagonists were making their choice for each other. Only then, she said, could she understand why they weren’t protesting.
These heated discussions, prompted by their conflicting writing styles, were drawing them closer together. But months passed before either took a romantic interest in the other, they said.
Mr. Lew tried signaling with an all-too-subtle hint: he mentioned to Ms. Mirza that he planned see “Seven.11 Convenience Theatre,” a show she was helping produce. Ms. Mirza thought he was fishing for free tickets. But when he awkwardly concluded their conversation with, “I like your hat,” she picked up on his cue.
After that show of seven 11-minute plays set inside a 7-Eleven, Mr. Lew stood back from the crush of people who swept in to congratulate Ms. Mirza. He feared being pushed aside by others. She saw him lingering there, just a little timid, for what seemed like an hour.
He eventually approached and said that he liked the show (years later he would confess it wasn’t his favorite). They had their first real conversation, during which he noted he had left his umbrella at home. It was pouring outside, so she offered to walk him to the subway under her umbrella. As they parted, he tried to kiss her on the cheek. He missed, but regained himself.
“We should hang out sometime,” he told her.
Which left her to wonder: Was he really interested? They had gotten to know each other’s writing, but the cues he was giving weren’t strong.
They arranged to meet in Central Park. Still unsure whether this was a date, she turned up late and sweaty from a yoga class, carrying her yoga mat. Noncommittal, she thought.
A second meeting was arranged: a play at Columbia, to which she brought along another playwright friend. Later, Mr. Lew walked Ms. Mirza home to her dorm, without her chaperone. This time, at the doorstep, his kiss didn’t miss.
After a year they were becoming inseparable. Then, in early 2007, as Ms. Mirza was finishing a Master of Fine Arts degree in playwriting at Columbia, she was given an opportunity to spend nearly a month in London, where she would observe Tamasha, a British theater company.
Once there, she was exhilarated but lonely, she remembered, and surviving on two grocery-store sandwiches a day. By the last week, when Mr. Lew was to meet her in London, she simply couldn’t wait to see him, or to have him take in the production she had been studying.
“I was dying for him to see it, just to know what he thought, just so we could talk about it,” Ms. Mirza said. “That’s when I knew: this is someone I can’t separate myself from.”
After they moved in together in Brooklyn, they challenged each other by obsessively playing Boggle and Texas Hold ‘Em. They continued writing, finding time between her day job in video merchandising at Columbia House and his as an administrative assistant for D. E. Shaw & Company, a hedge fund.
Their writing began to reflect the emotions they had explored together. Her view of love had been dark, dire. His was flat, idealized. She began writing softer; he with stronger women.
Mr. Lew’s friends saw their disparate styles begin to intertwine. Last February, when Mr. Lew’s play “Microcrisis” was in rehearsal at the Ensemble Studio Theater in New York, they needed to condense for time. Mr. Lew’s playwright friend, Graeme Gillis, suggested killing one of its jokes. Mr. Lew refused.
“He said, ‘I’m not cutting this joke, it’s Rehana’s joke,’ ” said Mr. Gillis, who recalled how Mr. Lew then confided in him how he and Ms. Mirza would sit and write jokes together. “It was the most romantic thing,” Mr. Gillis said. “They let each other in.”
On April 16, Ms. Mirza and Mr. Lew recited more words they had written together. The setting for their union was the garden of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, in the city’s La Jolla section. The bride’s brother-in-law, Gitesh Pandya, who was named a deputy marriage commissioner by San Diego County for this event, officiated.
As the sun drew low over the Pacific Ocean, Mr. Lew began: “You have touched my life and forever changed it,” he said. “Together we will live as two minds.”
“Two spirits,” Ms. Mirza replied.
In unison: “And love as one.”