BWW Review: THE MECCA TALES is a Heartbreaking Work of Healing Genius
Countering the perversion of terrorists who shout, "Allahu Akbar", Rohina Malik's mesmerizing new play THE MECCA TALES charts the journey of five disparate women as they make hajj. For true worshipers of Islam, hajj is a pilgrimage from which one returns purified. It is also a perilous journey rife with fatal consequences, the least of which includes deadly temperatures in a hostile terrain. This excellent co-production by Voyage Theater Company and Crossroads Theatre Company perfectly conveys why one would undertake such a risk.
At first glance, MECCA's five women - the rich "bish", bossy lady, young gal, woman with a past, and tortured but kind mama - resemble a squad of bickering queens trapped on "Big Brother: Arabian Nights". Happily, Malik's writing moves swiftly in establishing why and what this journey means for each character while eschewing didacticism. Using a sly hand, Malik dispenses information through rapid fire though thoughtful humour and honest dialogue that flows naturally into conversation enriching monologues.
Kareem Fahmy's direction, David Esler's scenic design, and Devorah Kengmana's lighting embrace this seamless quality by treating the show as if it were one beautiful dream sequence: what is seen is blurred with what is felt in perfect modulation, giving the play a cinematic feel while maintaining verisimilitude. Flashbacks unfurl as a character relives the past, and then recede as she is called back to the land of the living. Within this framework, Fahmy does an incredible job of charting the ever-shifting power dynamics between MECCA's characters by adjusting their positions and facings across the stage as if they were brushstrokes comprising a master painting. This vision is ably assisted by Fan Zhang's sensitive sound design and Theara Ward's deft choreography. Zhang and Ward treat their work with sparse religiosity that is effectively understated. One feels the sadness without hearing Zhang's subtle music until after tears have fallen; we recognize the dance behind each prayerful gesture only after its invocation has been completed. This is never more clear than during the stories of Maya and Grace.
In telling Maya's tragic story of a love that was born, consummated, and lost in three hours, Mariam Habib takes over and transforms the entire play into an epic worthy of Martha Graham. There is one particular moment - that must have been constructed by Ward - during which Habib is on the verge of collapsing with tears. Instead, she seizes her grief in a high contraction - imagine a knot of sorrow constricting your heart - and stands stone still as tears stream slowly down her face. Habib does not have to work herself into a frenzy or "make" herself cry; she simply stands and emits a pulse of empathy that reduces the audience to a chorus of naked sobs.
This sorrow gives way to Grace's resolution - Kimberly S. Fairbanks - who steadfastly refuses to relinquish her anguish. Hajj is completed after a believer cuts a lock of their hair and buries it in the sand. Though Grace has led numerous pilgrimages, she has never completed this ceremony. Instead she punishes herself like an eager Sisyphus, skipping up the hill. Fairbanks has a voice that describes every texture of the rainbow; though she is blessed with a commanding physical presence, one hears her more than one sees her. Grace's story runs the gamut from timpani to harpsichord and Fairbanks' magnificent performance is a veritable symphony. In that regard, she is perfect in conveying the message embedded within MECCA: the religion of peace is built upon forgiveness and accepting oneself is to accept all.
It is undeniable that MECCA wraps things up too tidily, however that resolution - coming after a roller coaster of emotions - feels earned and gratifying. Like the production team, the entire cast is flawlessly marvelous. In particular, Louis Sallan - a malleable ball of specificity who distinguishes each of the many characters that he plays with a vibrant inner life worthy of a starring role, proving that there are no small parts - and Gulshan Mia - as the zesty diva who takes extreme pleasure in scoffing at others - are to be applauded. At curtain call I did something I have not done this calendar year: I joined the entire audience to give well a deserved standing ovation. I could have stood clapping all night.
THE MECCA TALES plays at The Sheen Center through Saturday November 4th. It is the best performance I have seen all year, on and Off-Broadway, in dance, music, or film. RUN to purchase tickets. For more information, visit: sheencenter.org/shows/mecca/