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Writing and Performing Her Way to Stardom: Aya Aziz ’17 Lights Up the New York Musical Festival

A college senior wins an invitation to present her one-woman show at a major Manhattan festival. It’s an extraordinary honor for an undergraduate – and a clear mark of her talent, achievement and promise.

This year, the New York Musical Festival extended that invitation to Hunter student Aya Aziz.

In late July, from the festival stage at the June Havoc Theatre, Aziz’s autobiographical musical drew audience ovations and critical praise. Reviewing the festival for The New York Times, Laura Collins-Hughes called Eh Dah? Questions for My Father “the most musically adventurous of the shows I saw: part indie, part Arabic, almost a little bit jazz.” Collins-Hughes especially admired the show’s “moving finish.”

Theatermania critic Zachary Stewart called the young star “magnetic,” writing, “Through song and specific physical performance, Aziz tells the story of her Egyptian-American family, her idiosyncratic childhood in Chelsea, and how circumstances have driven that family apart.” In sum, Stewart observed, “This is what a great one-woman show can look like.”

There was also this observation in a rave critique by Lisa Huberman of New York Theatre Review: “It feels especially vital that Aziz presents her Muslim heritage with such layered humanity, in a media world where Muslims are narrowly portrayed as perpetrators or victims of terrorism.”

Aziz admits that with all this recognition, “My career in playwriting and theatre is taking off a little faster than I can keep up with.” The Hypokrit Theatre Company, which co-produced her July festival run, is now taking her show to other venues – starting with the Paradise Theater Factory in the East Village. When Aziz appears at the Paradise on September 28-29, she’ll also be a month into Hunter’s fall semester, completing her double major in anthropology and political science.

Drawn Back to Hunter

Aziz and Hunter have unusually deep and lasting ties. Her mother is Professor Sarah Durand, a CUNY biologist who spent six years at Hunter conducting a behavioral study of vocal learning in songbirds. Aziz’s father is a UN consultant based in Beirut. During her father’s trips abroad, she was raised by the parent she affectionately calls “a mad scientist type.” And when research called in the off-hours, the scientist often brought her daughter to work. “I spent many nights sleeping in the bird lab at Hunter,” Aziz says nostalgically. “My job was to say good night to all the doves.”

After high school, she headed to Brandeis University. But she quickly realized that she wasn’t suited for a private school with a leafy quad in the Boston suburbs.

“I wanted to be back in New York, part of a more diverse student body,” she says. “I was drawn back to Hunter. Hunter was what college looked like to me.”

After a yearlong stay in Lebanon – visiting her father and finding unexpected fame with a solo stage act – Aziz returned to the campus that felt like home.

Since then, it’s all worked out perfectly for a student who’s an activist as well as a writer and performer. Off campus she’s been able to pursue her passions for theater and human-rights advocacy; on campus, she’s been able to explore the social sciences in great breadth and depth.

“My Hunter professors have changed my life,” Aziz says, naming favorites like Christopher Stone, who heads the Arabic Program, and Ian Jones, who teaches The Politics of Development.

“Professor Jones sat down with me once for three hours, just talking about globalization and its effect on minorities and others shut out from the flow of wealth,” Aziz says, noting how Jones and his departmental colleagues are always available to meet with students “to guide us individually through complex subjects.”

Meanwhile, through her comedy, truth-telling and song, Aya is using art to guide audiences to what she calls “an accessible space where we can reach back and forth and share a common humanity.” For her, performing will always be “a powerful way of crossing cultural, language and geographical lines to reach people from all backgrounds and generations.”

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