Writer: Nadia P. Manzoor
Director: Tara Elliott
Reviewer: Jamie Rosler
One English Pakistani Muslim woman’s story, telling universal truths, and raising socially relevant questions, about identity, extremism, and family. Written and performed by Nadia P. Mazoor, this coming-of-age story is both profoundly personal and immensely relatable. Nadia’s father, mother, brother, boyfriend, and best friend populate the stage, as well as a handful of other characters with smaller rôles to play in her memoir. Her vivid portrayals of the people closest and most important to her are filled with the kind of biting poignancy that tells us, she knows all of their shortcomings but loves them in spite of and because of those things.
Nadia is raised in The West, with a father whose expectations of a strict Muslim upbringing for his daughter are in direct contradiction with the world that exists around her. In her immigrant community, she is surrounded by “authoritative patriarchs” who preach the Qu’ran but thoroughly enjoy pornography when no one else is looking. Her twin brother begins radicalizing, but not enough to employ honor killings. That this could have been a concern is something of which Nadia is painfully aware. Instead she is met simply with angry words and ignorant insults, which is an experience most women have regardless of where they grow up.
The set (Mitchell Ost) and the lighting design (Haejin Han) are both simple and effective. Beautiful, silken scarves are hung from wall to wall, primarily creating an evocative backdrop and occasionally transforming, with light, to a pathway through time or space. That is, from literally becoming a door to symbolically an embrace, and finally the burqa-cocoon from which Nadia will emerge, these two facets blended seamlessly to create the worlds through which we travel.
Scarves play an integral part in the staging of this production, beyond being the set. At times a newspaper, a telephone, and a bikini, to varying degrees of theatrical success, this symbol of modesty, sanctity, and culture, is as well as represents the singular starting point from which a larger conversation can begin. Questioning cultural practices from within a community and from without should not be seen as unforgivable blasphemy, but as a way to strengthen one’s ties to the most valuable customs, personally and globally.
When Nadia transitions from character portrayals to the rôle of narrator, one notices an unfortunate distance between the teller and the story. As an autobiographical tale filled with personal growth, trials, losses, and battles, working toward a final moment that hopes to be inspiring and uplifting, it too often feels flat; almost journalistic. This may have been a directorial choice out of a fear of getting too emotional, but instead it recreates distance when the opportunity should be taken to draw the audience more deeply in. The moments that allow us to feel Nadia’s struggles and triumphs are the ones that build our investment in her journey.
A somewhat flawed production that is heavily outweighed by the bits that shine, Burq Off! is filled with humor, heart, and humanity.
Runs until 18th January 2015| Photo: Adam Reichardt