What distinguishes Shereen’s story is not only how it began, but also where it has led. With the Kennedy Center launch of the national tour of a splashy Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady” — one of the most beloved musicals in the canon — she has become the first actress of Arab Muslim descent to star as Eliza Doolittle in a major American production.
Stories about mold-breaking casting decisions are increasingly common these days. The performing arts are a reliable showcase now for new faces from corners of the culture that audiences are not accustomed to seeing. The 26-year-old actress and Towson University graduate is as proudly American as the next young, talented aspirant. But she is also aware of the unique aspects of her having garnered this career-making job — and the special meaning that might carry for people across the nation who experience Eliza and “My Fair Lady” through her eyes.
“I feel a lot of responsibility,” Ahmed said over lunch during rehearsals in midtown Manhattan, before the tour began performances in the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday. “The responsibility of traveling across the nation as a woman of Middle Eastern background. And not in ‘Aladdin,’ but ‘My Fair Lady’! Whoa! It’s a testament that it doesn’t matter, skin color or race. Whoever has the inspiration should tell the story.”
Ahmed did not have to wait long after college for doors to start opening: She quickly secured a contract to sing Celine Dion and Tina Turner songs on cruise ships. Then, two weeks after landing in New York, she was cast in the ensemble of director Bartlett Sher’s “My Fair Lady” revival for Lincoln Center Theater. She walked into an open audition in December 2017 — without an appointment. Called back to read for Eliza, she was cast in the ensemble and eventually was made understudy to Laura Benanti, who succeeded Lauren Ambrose in the role of Eliza. Getting the initial call that she had booked the slot in the show, “My knees buckled,” Ahmed said.
“I auditioned her,” Sher remembers, “and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, she has this incredible voice.’ She’s a great actor and really funny, with that great open quality for musicals. And now for the tour, I am so relieved that Shereen is here.”
One day it may be possible to write a profile of this sort without having to mention the milestone Ahmed’s casting represents. But talking to actors whose heritage is not strictly Caucasian, you hear routinely about struggles to be judged on the basis of sheer talent rather than type. “We’re still not seen as real Americans,” said Conrad Ricamora, an actor who is part Filipino; he originated the role of martyred Filipino politician Benigno Aquino Jr. in the off-Broadway musical “Here Lies Love” and played Lun Tha in Sher’s Broadway revival of “The King and I.” (He also has a recurring role on TV’s “How to Get Away With Murder.”) “That’s reflected in the jobs we get,” Ricamora added. “We rarely get to play Americans, and that has an effect on your identity.”
“I couldn’t do ‘Aladdin’ because I didn’t feel that represented my identity,” Ahmed said. “I don’t want to be Jasmine. She’s one of my favorite princesses, but I don’t want to perpetuate that stereotype: completely powerless, or overly sexualized.
“So,” she added, “I can do a role like Eliza, which (a) doesn’t revolve around romance, and (b) she serves to the audience all of the intellectual arguments about bettering her life in the world. What more could I ask for?”
Ahmed and her two brothers — Khalid (pronounced CAL-id), 24, and Ramsey, 22 — live with their parents in the Baltimore County community of White Marsh. She studied criminal justice at Towson and interned in the court system, focusing on mental health issues. But theater had her in its thrall. Ten minutes from her house, a Megabus stop was her transit point to another life. “I would get up at 4 a.m., skip class and go to New York, go to an audition, maybe go to another audition or [an acting] class, come back home — and I wouldn’t tell anyone; I would just go.”
Her ambitions were not a surprise to her parents, though they were also not the types to sign her up as a child for professional lessons. “My sister was the first person who heard her sing and said, ‘Sandy, she has a beautiful voice,’ ” Sandra recalled. “Really, I thought all kids sang that way.”
Recently, in a Manhattan storeroom equipped with mirrors and racks of gorgeously detailed Edwardian frocks, Sandra’s daughter raced in and out of a makeshift curtained dressing area, being fitted by associate costume designer Patrick Bevilacqua and wig designer Tom Watson. “Come on, look at this hat!” Ahmed said, as she modeled her lacy costume for the “Ascot Gavotte” scene, with the stunning fascinator affixed at a dramatic angle to her upswept hairdo. The one-of-a-kind hat, by Broadway milliner Rodney Gordon, is adorned with egret, vulture and ostrich feathers and handled by the wardrobe team with the kind of caution librarians use with ancient parchment.
“I fell in love with this show when I was 12,” Ahmed said, as hems on gowns were adjusted and Bevilacqua checked on the actress’s comfort level with the fit of each look. In one set of sequences in Act 1 alone, she has to change four times, the quickest of those switches in just seven seconds. “I’m seeing how much skirt is getting caught underneath her,” Bevilacqua said, as he had Ahmed pace the narrow path carved out through the maze of props and costumes.
She has worn Eliza’s costumes before, having gone on as the lead 11 times in Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre before the production closed in July, after 509 performances. (In the touring version, she plays opposite Laird Mackintosh as Professor Henry Higgins.) But in all her time in the Broadway version, much of it in the comparatively anonymous ranks of the chorus, Eliza’s suits and dresses were made to order for other actresses. Now, they are meant for her.
“When I was understudying on Broadway, I got messages from girls from Turkey and India who said they’d heard about me, as the first Middle East woman to play Eliza, and said, ‘I just want you to know, I see myself in you.’ ”
She beamed. “To feel that connection from that far away,” Ahmed mused, “it just thrills me at every show.”
My Fair Lady, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, music by Frederick Loewe. Directed by Bartlett Sher. $39-$159. Through Jan. 19 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.