Addison — Chicago-based playwright/director Rohina Malik’s Unveiled: A One-Woman Play clearly connects the dots that both unite and disparage cultural differences: stereotypes.
A regional premiere presented by WaterTower Theatre, and running in the Karol Omlor Studio Theatre, Malik deftly plays the role of five South Asian or Middle Eastern women living as immigrants in various parts of the world, faced with prejudice and racism. With the musical accompaniment of Lucia Thomas on the violin, and multiple Middle Eastern string instruments, she both sings and plays a variety of pieces in between Malik’s slight costume changes. However, this is not merely filler music. Each short piece, sung in various languages (including Bengali) or played instrumentally, breathes life into Malik’s characters.
The performance begins with a veiled Lucia Thomas playing the violin casting a soothing aural spell. Also veiled, Malik later welcomes us, walking into the homey space furnished with a large hanging traditional rug, a small table with tea-making paraphernalia and a chair. There is lots to be said for tea, coffee and other quotidian beverages that are charged with cultural significance and tradition. In this show, Malik’s characters share with us delicious teas, each described and metaphorically offered to us as a friendly peace offering. The tea serves as a theme that ties the entire piece, thus providing a sound structural form. This aspect was not lost on the audience, one of whom commented on it during the talk back (each performance is followed by one).
Solo performances can sometimes fall into one of these pitfalls: an exaggeration of voice and gestures to mark differences among characters, and/or an exhaustion of difference between voices once the play reaches its maxim. Sometimes solo performers convey a sense of exhaustion by the end of the piece.
Malik’s Unveiled, which was programmed by previous artistic director Joanie Schultz, suffers none of these. She delivers each character’s story with nuanced difference and aplomb. The pacing breathes and maintains our interest while the hour-long show flies. There is a special quality to her performance that borders on the delicate balance between open-heartedness and the harrowingly painful stories she is telling. Her countenance, framed by the black hijab, seems to smile. At least her eyes do. Malik’s costume changes are minimal; her gestures enough to indicate a new personality and situation, all are highly effective. Her veiled face maintains eye contact with the audience the entire time, as if attempting to reach each and every one of us with her expressive brown eyes. Her performance is artistically and emotionally compelling.
I was not alone in taking out tissue to dissimulate the fact that at times tears were flowing down my face. It took me a while to figure out why I was crying; after all, I am not Muslim and have never encountered the specific, anti-Muslim situations that Malik addresses. Nevertheless, the universality of her stories reaches beyond cultural specificity, although numerous veiled Muslim women and men in the audience during the Sunday matinee clearly identified with the issues during the talk back. One audience member’s insight saw the symbolic nature of the title, Unveiled.
There is a line when Layla, a soft-spoken mother of two and a Pakistani immigrant who is insulted in front of her children, finds her power in talking back at a racist white person who offended her in public. She says: “My head may be veiled, but your heart is veiled. Remove the veil from your heart.” Layla offers peace and forgiveness as a powerful way to disarm ignorance and prejudice. We see both the dark side of human nature, but Malik’s stories return to seek redemption in peace-fostering ways.
While Layla’s story concludes the show, the performance begins with Maryam, another Pakistani immigrant whose love of wedding costume making is ruined by a violent encounter. Malik stated that this story is based on an autobiographical incident that happened in Dallas at her best friend’s wedding several years ago. The other stories, she said, are composites of her extensive research on violence against Muslims after 9/11.
The second story, Noor (whose name means “light”) is a Moroccan-American born and raised in Chicago. Here we see the role that internalized colonialism plays within the sanctity of the inner family. Much to her parents’ chagrin, Noor wants to wear a hijab. Her parents want her to blend in and become Americanized for fear of her safety. Perhaps one of the most emotional stories, Noor chooses to marry Joe, an American musician who converted to Islam only to face tragedy. Noor is the voice of an attorney who tells her story to a reticent, female, would-be defendant of a violent crime in order to convince her that telling the painful stories matters. Seeking justice matters.
Inez, and African-American convert or “revert” to Islam also deals with the strife that choosing to hear a hijab causes within social circles when she is faced with a heartbreaking decision.
Shabana may perhaps be the most infectious character. She is a South Asian rapper fighting racism in London. She points out the power of the pen and asks the poignant question “What do you represent?”
While for Muslim women the issue seems to center on covering their heads as a public statement of their modesty and faith — Malik makes a point to disarm the stereotype that women are forced to this — in Hispanic cultures we deal with the issue of language. As a professor who teaches in Spanish, I have encountered Hispanic parents who prevent their offspring from speaking Spanish for fear of reprisal from Anglo society. We sometimes veil our tongues.
Another issue that resonated cross-culturally is the obsession with whiteness, whitening skin creams, and rejecting our darker skin color in societies where colorism prevails. Self-acceptance and taking a personal stance are part and parcel of the message for all women in these beautiful tales of forgiveness and acceptance of self and others.
I typically write about Latinx works, and normally feel as an “insider” to cultural nuances staged; I understand the Spanish spoken among characters when there is an inside joke or statement. I laugh when my Anglo friends smile nervously, trying to figure out what was just said. During Unveiled I found myself on the outside, like many of our mono-lingual audience members. I do not understand Arabic and had no idea why the man sitting in front of me was laughing at times. But it didn’t matter. Being on the outside places me in the position to remember that as an audience member it is OK to not get every word. If the power of the story and the storyteller have the capacity to move us beyond our linguistic and cultural differences to unite us in our humanity, it doesn’t matter what language is spoken.
» Teresa Marrero is professor of Latin American and Latinx Theater in the Spanish Department at the University of North Texas. She is a member of the American Theater Critics Association and is on the Advisory board of the Latinx Theater Commons. She is coeditor with Chantal Rodriguez (Yale) and Trevor Boffone (U of Houston) of the anthology ENCUENTRO: Latinx Performance for the New American Theater (2019, Northwestern University Press). She is often seen around town dancing Argentine tango.