Veiled Prejudice

15. September, 2011 Theater 1 comment


Show #86: Unveiled, Brava Theater, September 11.

Rohina Malik in Unveiled. Photo byNate Keck.

By Sam Hurwitt

If you’ve been anywhere near any kind of media, you probably noticed that this past Sunday was the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. San Francisco Opera’s Heart of a Soldier aside (which I haven’t seen), there wasn’t much going on in local theater that was directly related to the anniversary, with one notable exception: Brava Theater’s regional premiere of Unveiled, a solo show written and performed by London-born, Chicago-based Rohina Malik.

Unveiled presents portraits of five women, all of whom actually are veiled. All five are Muslim women in the West who choose to wear the hijab, or headscarf, all of whom have experienced either racist violence or the threat thereof—most of it in the wake of 9/11—but the personalities involved are very different. Although it has a structure in common with documentary theatre pieces, these aren’t verbatim interview excerpts or anything like that but characters created by Malik from her own experiences and other stories she’s heard.

Maryam, a Pakistani American fashion designer, serves her own chocolate chai concoction (not to us but to her unseen customer) as she demurs that she doesn’t make wedding dresses anymore, not after what happened last time. but she’s clearly already warming to the idea as she tells the story of her last and lousiest wedding experience, ruined by hurtful taunts from guests from another nearby wedding.

Noor, a Moroccan American lawyer, tries to reassure a tormented client that she understands what she’s going through by relating a horrific tale of her own that starts as a sweet love story about her romance with Joe, a convert at her school. The story Noor tells is at least three levels deep, or four if you count Malik herself playing the role: At one point Noor tells her client a story about telling her parents a story about a story her boyfriend told her—Malik nicely distinguishing each character’s voice within Noor’s story in a way that makes you think this lawyer must have an acting background. Although all the pieces are sobering, the violence described in this one is by far the most disturbing.

Inez, an African-American woman from Texas, insists that she didn’t convert but “reverted,” because everyone’s born into a perfect state of Islam and it just took her a while to find her way back. A very folksy woman who calls the listener “sister girl,” she talks about her own experience feeling threatened simply for wearing a hijab on 9/11. Layla, who runs a Middle Eastern restaurant in a suburb of Chicago, tells a similar story about an angry mob outside her children’s mosque-connected school on that same day, when her brother died giving people medical assistance in the World Trade Center.

Shabana, a confrontational Kashmiri rapper from West London, gives the least sense of to whom she’s talking—a reporter, maybe? She raps about tea and racism and talks about how horrified her parents were when she started wearing the hijab as a political statement, “in solidarity with my sisters.”

Each section starts with the speaker talking about tea traditional to their respective cultures, and in most cases offering it to the listener. It’s a charming device that provides a good contrast between their hospitality and the inhospitable reception they get from others, but it also feels repetitive after a few variations.

The play doesn’t directly address the usual Western critique of the veil—not the jackass “why don’t you dress American” one, which is all too prevalent in the piece, but the feminist concern that it’s one of many ways imposed in some countries to keep women in a subservient role.  It’s touched upon in one of the occasional projected interview excepts between scenes, saying that Muslim men are supposed to dress modestly as well, but the real refutation is that these particular women are clearly wearing the hijab by choice (as does Malik, which may be why it’s one piece of her costume that remains unchanged from role to role) as a sign of their faith and their respective cultures, and they and encounter animosity, threats and violence because of their decision to do so. Of course, it helps that they’re in a society that does not impose the veil but simply allows it (which should go without saying, but with France banning face-obscuring Islamic veils the world seems to be marching backward in freedom of religion, not that this is mentioned in the play). One thing some of the women talk about is that they have should be able to wear the hijab if they want to precisely because they’re Americans, and freedom of religion is part of the deal.

Brava artistic director Raelle Myrick-Hodges’s staging gives Malik’s characters multiple spaces to occupy—an armchair, TV and bassinette for Inez on one platform, a recording studio for Shabana on another. In Jacqui Martinez’s set, sheets and curtains are hung around the walls and ceiling of the theater’s smaller performance space upstairs from the main stage, and one of the sheets way off to the side is used for projecting the interview material. Video montages by Jocelyn A. Thompson accompany many of the segments.

It’s a nicely paced production for the most part, but one thing Malik and Myrick-Hodges haven’t quite figured out is how to make it clear when the show’s over. Malik is always walking offstage when the lights go down and reemerging as a new character, so when she does the same thing at the end she has to say “thank you” before the audience catches on that this is the curtain call, not the next vignette. That’s especially true because the show’s only an hour long, so the end comes as a bit of a surprise. Clearly choked up, Malik thanked the audience for choosing to spend the anniversary watching her play, but with so much of the last decade spent with our country seeming to be moving backward and learning the wrong lessons from the incident, I can hardly think of a better way to observe the occasion.

Unveiled runs through September 17 at Brava Theater, 2781 24th St., San Francisco.


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  1. 9 / 16 / 2011 12:40 am

    This sounds like a great show – sad I’ll have to miss it!





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