BWW Review: UNVEILED Reveals a Powerful Array of Stories at WaterTower Theatre
In the early 1990s, just as third-wave feminism was well under way, a number of books came out seeking to understand how Muslim women specifically could achieve their own kind of liberation within a religion that many Westerners saw as inherently oppressive. Works such as Nine Parts of Desire, Price of Honor, and Women and Gender in Islamturned these perceptions on their head, positioning Muslim women as free agents who find comfort and power in their faith rather than as wives and mothers subject to the will of men. That women in Islam are still fighting against this latter stereotype almost twenty-five years later speaks to the insidious nature of misunderstanding and Islamophobic bigotry.
Thankfully, while the debate surrounding women in Islam may not have changed much, the voices of female Muslims have gained prominence over the years, especially in the fields of art and theatre. Even more gratefully, several of those voices have come to Dallas in the form of Rohina Malik's one-woman play, UNVEILED, now running at WaterTower Theatre in Addison through June 30. This is Malik's first time bringing her show to Texas, and it is more than deserving of a warm welcome from DFW residents.
UNVEILED, which serves as an amalgam of the real and imagined experiences of Malik and her family and friends, consists of five independent but interconnected vignettes, each detailing stories from the life of a different Muslim woman. The women are as diverse as there are varieties of teas in the world, ranging in nationalities from American to Moroccan to British Pakistani. While all of the women, all played by Malik, tell their stories with confidence and humor, all of the women have experienced intense pain, and their monologues give detailed illustrations of the pleasures and perils of living as a Muslim in the 21stcentury.
Malik's immediately apparent warmth and control make her an expert performer and storyteller, and her ability to blend seamlessly into the lives of each of her creations will have audiences occasionally wondering if they're watching the same actress from the previous vignette. The pacing of her delivery is comfortable but driving (the run time is roughly an hour long), allowing serious moments to land just long enough to take their desired effect without wallowing in the mire of self-pity and despair. The play's theme, after all, is one of triumph and perseverance, an unveiling that is as much a strong statement of one's identity as it is a willingness to be vulnerable. To give away too many more details risks robbing the work of its richness since much of the piece's excitement lies in the audience's unfamiliarity with what they are about to witness.
Malik's opening night performance included musical accompaniment from Lucia Thomas, a Chicago-based performer like Malik herself who specializes in playing traditional music from around the world. Thomas plays several different stringed instruments, treating the audience to musical selections that serve to transition between scenes while also establishing the tone for the story that is about to be told. For example, before the vignette delivered by a Lebanese restaurant worker, Thomas played a piece by a famous Lebanese artist, and she delivered a somber rendition of "St. James Infirmary Blues" before the story of an African-American Muslim living in the Deep South. Even more impressive is the fact that Thomas changes her selections every night, meaning that no one performance is ever the same as another.
Malik's performances throughout the play are so powerful largely because they allow Muslim women to speak on their own terms and in their own ways, a fact that is especially important in a media landscape that largely depicts followers of Islam as religious zealots and terrorists. However, as an added bonus, Malik incorporates a post-show discussion with the audience into her work as well, allowing viewers to reflect on what they have just seen as well as the opportunity to share their own experiences with religion, bigotry, love, and hope. I highly recommend sticking around after the show if you can, even if only just to listen to the voices of people within your community that you may never have heard from before. On opening night, a Sikh man shared his experience with prejudice in St. Louis several decades ago, and a Christian woman explained the ignorance she has had to face in her own community as the wife of a Muslim man. In this way, Malik's play is astounding for the voices it puts in conversation offstage as well as on.