Sunday, January 31, 2016

Love, American Style: Of Muslims, Hispanics, Refugees and Romance, 'Yasmina's Necklace' Holds Universal Charms -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review 

Yasmina's Necklace
a World Premiere play
by Rohina Malik
directed by Ann Filmer
16th Street Theater, Berwyn, IL
Thru February 27

I don't claim to be perfectly magnanimous nor enlightened, but I believe it wrong to dislike, devalue, denigrate or discriminate against anyone based on his or her race, ethnicity, homeland, immigration status, religion (or lack thereof), skin color, appearance, manner of dress, language, accent, physical capacity, mental prowess, psyche, health, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, class, income, education, occupation, employment, passions, pursuits, allegiances, beliefs or other factors that don't determine the quality of their heart and soul.

As the late great David Bowie perhaps elucidated me more than anyone, we can all be freaks--and heroes--in our own special way, and those most derided for being different can truly be the most exceptional.

While hating others for minor perceived differences has likely been an ugly aspect of human nature since the dawn of man, recent "political" rhetoric has despicably reiterated just how inhumane people can be to those they believe somehow unequal.

I'm not above certain biases, but numerous travels, cultural explorations and life experiences have shown me that we all have far more similarities than we do differences.

Except for the malevolent or petty few of any and all backgrounds, most everyone everywhere seems to congruently want and value peace, comfort, safety, security, health, love, family and friendship, with hopes for a happy, fun, meaningful life for themselves and--if apt--their kids.

I believe this as intrinsically true in the Middle East as I do the Midwest.

But yes, this is a theater review, not a mislabeled societal screed, although my hope above is to rather prosaically reflect some of the territory Rohina Malik so artfully--and humorously and poignantly and sorrowfully--covers in her terrific new play, Yasmina's Necklace, world premiering at Berwyn's 16th Street Theater through February 27.

Under the direction of 16th St. Artistic Director Ann Filmer, the 2-hour romantic dramedy deftly balances considerable laugh out loud dialogue--and I've never been a big LOLer, but was here--with sobering reflections on war, slaughter, loss, longing, rape, abduction, displacement, refugees, prejudice, Islam, multiculturalism, assimilation, marriage, divorce, depression and more.

This may suggest a rather heavy and heady night of theater, but in the hands of a skilled cast, Malik's script shrewdly offsets anguish with ebullience while avoiding overt polemics in making for acutely enjoyable entertainment.

Based in Chicago, the two-act play begins with a sitcomesque scene in which a Muslim man born Abdul Samee is being boisterously chastised by his Iraqi father (Amro Salama) and Puerto Rican mother (Laura Crotte) for having legally changed his name to Sam following a divorce from a (presumably white) woman named Tracy.

Sam, engagingly played by Michael Perez--who I had enjoyed last fall in Funnyman, one of three actors here from my Top 5 Plays of 2015--is cajoled into meeting with Yasmina (an excellent Susaan Jamshidi, from Malik's The Mecca Tales) toward the possibility of an arranged marriage.

With her father Musa (Mark Ulrich, terrific here as he was in a very different role in Assassination Theater), Yasmina is an Iraqi refugee who saw her mom killed in Baghdad and suffered brutal torment in both her homeland and then Syria. She paints to cope with her pain, and has dedicated herself to founding an organization to help other refugees.

Along with a hijab, Yasmina proudly wears--in the face of bigoted insults--a necklace in the shape of Iraq, a gift from longtime friend Amir (Salar Ardebili), who factors in heavily through flashbacks that provide much of the play's harrowing gravity.

But while there is also considerable poignancy in the scenes with Sam, Yasmina, their parents and a local Imam (Miguel Nunez) in various combinations, including reminders that those who face intolerance and prejudice aren't immune from being similarly judgmental and derisive, there are ample amounts of comedy and romance that wouldn't feel out of place in a Meg Ryan movie.

On an attractive set designed by Joanne Iawanicka, director Filmer nicely blends punchlines and pathos, with a number of quite short yet important scenes seamlessly woven in, abetted by a notably agile lighting design by Cat Wilson.

I won't reveal any more of the plot, especially as anyone who can fit into the 49-seat venue for just $20 definitely should, but even as Yasmina's Necklace seems to be heading in expected directions in Act II, it twists in compelling ways.

Though I don't believe it is affecting this review in any impure way, I feel obliged to note that I met Rohina Malik after seeing her one-woman-five-character play Unveiled last year--it had debuted at 16th Street in 2009--greatly enjoyed The Mecca Tales, have now interviewed her twice for Seth Saith articles and also spoke with Ann Filmer toward a preview piece on Yasmina's Necklace.

So I can't deny I wanted this new play to be really good, particularly as I spoke to both Malik and Filmer afterwards. But along with the high praise I shared with them--and having seen 36 of this century's Tony Award nominees for Best Play, I honestly don't believe Broadway aspirations would be outlandish--there are a few elements that may benefit from ongoing thought and tinkering.

Early on, Sam's parents upbraid his Americanized name change, which he believes has made it easier to find work as a Financial Analyst, and Yasmina also takes issue with this assimilation. Yet while we see how Sam is bolstered in many ways by his developing relationship with Yasmina--though some of this is spoken of more than actually shown, or truly felt--by the end of the play, we don't know to what extent Sam has re-embraced Islam, what name he now prefers and how his choices may have impacted his career.

The writer and director both told me afterward that they consciously chose to avoid having too many threads for viewers to follow, and in finding the play very cohesive and well-paced despite numerous topics, tones and time shifts, I trust their judgment yet still think there might be a way to better define Sam's evolution.

And though Yasmina's Necklace could easily be set in any large American city or even Malik's native London, given that Chicago is mentioned, it's possible the locale could be better leveraged.

Only a planned outing to the Art Institute of Chicago employs the Windy City with any specificity, and without meaning this as an explicit suggestion, it dawns on me that I can't recall ever seeing a woman wearing a headscarf at either Chicago ballpark. Given Malik's enlightening me in many realms of her faith and culture, I'm genuinely curious what she might suggest Yasmina would encounter if Sam took her to, say, Wrigley Field, perhaps chaperoned by the Imam--who cheekily might ridicule them both for not being White Sox fans. (The notion here being to somehow address the ongoing racism, Islamophobia and cultural divides that pervade even the most diverse of American cities.)

But then, to Malik's great credit, I think it's a disservice to imply Yasmina's Necklace is a play about Muslims. Although it portrays refugees and Muslims and Iraqis and Latinos with a generosity of spirit that will forever be foreign to Donald Trump--and provides many enlightening insights, including that Iraq had once been known for having the most educated women--this is truly a play about people.

American people.

Including, as referenced within, those who love Bruce Springsteen, much as I do. (As though there weren't enough other reasons for me to like this play.)

If you've ever gotten grief from your parents, battled anxiety over a broken relationship, worried about pursuing a new one, had a first encounter not go as planned, grieved over the loss of loved ones, failed to have past accomplishments appreciated in new settings or been chided by your dentist about flossing more, etc., etc., there is a whole lot you'll be able to identify with--and laugh at, and maybe cry over--in Yasmina's Necklace.

Wherever you came from, whenever you arrived or however you got here.

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