Monday night, Brava Theater audiences leapt to their feet to applaud “Unveiled,” Rohina Malik’s one-woman show about how and why five Muslim women living in the Western world choose to wear a traditional head covering, or hijab. The smash-hit from Chicago opens Brava’s 2011-2010 season at a particularly apropos moment in American history: the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Shortly after 9/11, a man accosted Malik in her Chicago suburb and screamed at her to take off her hijab. “Unveiled” is her response to the incident—and to the widespread Islamophobia across the Western world. Each of her five characters, from a Pakistani dressmaker to a London hiphop artist, converts the bitterness of discrimination into the sweetness of tea and conversation, revealing her journey to faith, love and forgiveness. “I think that’s the real message of my play,” Malik says: “Get to know me.”
Malik constructs her characters to represent a range of languages, nationalities, and lifestyles. Some speak Arabic, some, Urdu; one speaks with a Southern drawl, another with a Cockney twang. Families hail from Morocco, Pakistan, India, and Iraq. Two women are immigrants, and two are the daughters of immigrants. One is an African-American convert who calls herself a “revert,” since everyone is born with God. This diversity of character allows Malik to unveil the diversity of practice and culture within the Muslim community—as well as the singular experience that women who wear the hijab encounter in the West, regardless of their accent or origin. “Look at any icon of Mary and her hair is covered,” says Shabana, Malik’s hiphop artist. “And the world is fine with that, but a Muslim woman, she’s oppressed.” Through her five women, Malik shows that wearing a hijab can symbolize faith and modesty as well as self-determination, education, and firebrand feminism.
While each character is rich and insightful, the monologue structure of the play limits its effectiveness as a piece of theater. Malik showcases these women at their strongest, using the conceit that they are in conversation with a stranger or acquaintance—someone who needs explanation, not drama. As a result, the piece is expository; it tells rather than shows. How are these women vulnerable? What are their private fears and desires? Ultimately, the show’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakest: the diversity of character reveals the richness of Muslim culture and then glosses it over.
Malik’s warm energy and obvious passion carry the play start to finish. She’s not on stage to condemn; she’s on stage to share, to celebrate, and to drink tea with audience: chocolate chai, Moroccan mint, Middle Eastern black coffee--each has special memories and special cultural significance. Although Malik has difficulty with some accents and physicality, director Raelle Myrick-Hodges showcases her expressive face and bell-like voice to create distinct, cohesive characters. Allison Bell’s lights reflect the warmth and hospitality that pervade the play, and Jacqui Martinez’s set incorporates five locales beneath a single tent that encompasses both the stage and the audience.
In the end, “Unveiled” is not so much an expose as an education. It’s an education in wearing the hijab and, at a deeper level, in using dialogue to shatter prejudice and stereotypes. Judging by the reaction Monday night, non-Muslim audiences are eager to learn and Muslim audiences are eager to continue the dialogue. “Once you know a person, they’re not the ‘other,’” Malik says. “They’re a human being.”
“Unveiled” runs Thursday, September 15th, through Saturday, September 17th, at Brava Theater, 2781 24th Street, San Francisco. Performances begin at 7pm and tickets cost $25. Order online at www.brava.org or call the box office at 415-647-2822. The shows will sell out—get your tickets now!