REVIEW: Unveiled (Next Theatre)

When Clothing Makes, or Unmakes, the Woman

 

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

  
Next Theatre presents
 
Unveiled
  
Written by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map)
through September 19  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Rohina Malik’s one-act play, Unveiled, could not have come at a more crucial moment. Hate crimes against Muslims are up, Muslims are denied opportunities to build places of worship all over the US (including Chicago), established mosques face vandalism and arson, and a self-righteous nut case in Florida threatened to burn the Koran to get national attention. Meanwhile, it’s an election year and job recovery crawls at a snail’s pace. Too many people are out of work and too many people still think Barack Obama is a secret Muslim.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Directed by Kevin Heckman at Next Theatre, five Muslim women, each from a different culture, share two things in common: they all wear the veil, or hijab, and they all live in the West. What must it be like to be so visibly different from other women and be rendered a moving target by American uncertainty, fear and rage over 9/11? Malik unveils a Muslim womanhood that meets this challenge with strength, outspokenness, clarity, poetry, humor and faith.

These hardly seem like women cloistered behind a wall of restrictive and repressive tradition. They are very aware of the world they live in and its ongoing melding of East and West. They fiercely and graciously adhere to their principles of hospitality. They speak up for themselves, drawing from a deep well of cultural riches.

The first woman designs wedding dresses from her small shop on Devon Avenue. Yet she is no mere seamstress. In every way she is an artist. “You’re not the first American girl who wants the Bollywood look,” she chats up her current client. “All the girls have wanted it since ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’” Wedding dresses are her art and that art is just as dependent on the personality of the client as her own imagination. “You are not choosing me. I am choosing you,” she tells the prospective bride.

Weddings and family are what she knows, but a hate crime almost destroys her drive as an artist. Attending the wedding of a woman getting married in one of her creations, she and her children become the targets of the inchoate rage of an American couple attending another wedding nearby. What brings her back to her art again are her friends and a poem by Rumi: “Dance, when you’re broken. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. . . Dance, when you’re perfectly free.”

Malik’s one-act starts strong. Her characters are not just Muslim, not just from the Middle East or South East Asia; their multicultural backgrounds position them uniquely in the world. One is a Texan mother of the American South, not converting, but “reverting” to Islam. The other is a hip hop teen raised in West London who can’t stand her mother’s assimilationist choices. This girl’s own reaction to her mother’s generation has to do with the way her mom applied lemons to her daughter’s skin, when she was younger, to make it whiter.

Malik clearly wants to show a wide range of Muslim women and their individual reasons for claiming the veil. As such, most of her characters’ psychology is well-developed and their life stories powerfully integrate tradition, poetry and passages from the Koran. Of all the characters, only the Southern Muslim belle seems the weak and underdeveloped one. Upon opening night, Malik’s performance of this character also waned in accuracy. Her troubles with American Southern dialect were too apparent.

Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston
Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston Rohina Malik, pictured in a scene from her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Of greater concern is the play’s repetitious monologue structure—the introduction of tea, the particular tea made the emblem of each Muslim woman’s culture; the introduction of a story which reveals a violent hate crime; and finally the character resorts to faith and culture to stand against it–by the time the fourth and fifth characters are introduced, the pattern becomes worn. Also, physical violence and verbal harassment are the only kinds of hate crime and speech directly addressed by these characters. Beyond the introduction of strong, self-determining Muslim women, Malik digs no further into the ways feminist critiques of the veil have been based on cultural and religious ignorance, and thus used as an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Certainly, American feminists had to learn the hard way just how their work could be used by a right wing administration to further its imperialist ambitions.

Next’s production itself runs almost seamlessly and poetically. Unfortunately, sound problems, at opening, rendered the rap from the young hip hop Londoner almost indiscernible. The fuzz from the speaker system, cranked up to play over the drums, got in the way of the script.

However, no one can dispute the essential timeliness of this play, or its vitality and humanism. In the middle of anti-Muslim hysteria, how hopeful it is to discover a promising young playwright just beginning to explore terribly relevant themes. Next should be applauded for opening their season with such immediate work from a practically unknown playwright. Unveiled’s series of monologues has strong bones and beautiful language. The incorporation of Alex Wing’s music and Cynthia Sopata’s movement beautifully correspond to and amplify the storytelling. Rohina Malik is one to watch. Get to know her.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Rohina Malik, in the poster for her powerful one-woman show "Unveiled" - currently part of the "What's Next Series" at Next Theatre of Evanston

Productions Personnel

Written and performed by Rohina Malik
Directed by Kevin Heckman
Scenic & Lighting Design by Jim Davis

Music by Alex Wing

Movement by Cynthia Sopata

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