Sunday, January 10, 2016

Re-engaging with Playwright Rohina Malik About 'Yasmina's Necklace' andthe Art of Opening Minds -- New Play Premieres at Berwyn's 16th St.Theater from Jan. 21 - Feb. 27

(Note: This is a preview and feature story, not a review.)

Among my greatest passions in life are attending live theater, blogging and furthering my understanding of the human condition in ways that can ideally promote harmony rather than hatred.

In all three realms, playwright Rohina Malik helped make 2015 a rewarding year.

Last January, I saw Malik perform Unveiled, her acclaimed one-woman play about being Muslim in post-9/11 America, and then in March conducted an illuminating interview with her for a lengthy blog article in advance of her first full-cast play to be produced, The Mecca Tales at Chicago Dramatists.

I saw, loved and reviewed The Mecca Tales a few days later, and at year's end would rank it as my 3rd favorite play seen in 2015.

Not having had further direct contact with Rohina since March, I was excited when the opportunity arose to discuss her newest play, Yasmina's Necklace, which will be directed by Ann Filmer in a world premiere production at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn from January 21 to February 27.

But while I presumed that the time between our conversations must have been personally and theatrically gratifying for Malik--with The Mecca Tales having earned a Jeff Award nomination for new play, Unveiled still being performed near & far and her latest play being readied to debut--I was concerned about how she was coping with the seeming uptick in Islamophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment perpetuated by Donald Trump amid the Syrian refugee crisis and tragedies in Paris and San Bernardino.

Fortunately, assuaging my fears that a cordial "How are you?" query might come off a bit trite, Rohina as-positively-as-ever replied:
"Great! The new play's in rehearsal and it's going really well. Once you get to see the actors onstage, the script starts to morph, and that's really exciting." 
Certainly, over the course of our chat, Rohina would express dismay and concern about the malevolent rhetoric, Trump's bigoted proposals to deny Muslims entry to the U.S. and a recent rise in hate crimes--at one point referencing unsettling allusions to Hitler and Nazism that, while echoing thoughts I've had, were that much more harrowing coming from a peaceful, constructive member of the Muslim-American community. 

Susaan Jamshidi - Photo credit: Joe Mazza
But while noting that after a 7-year gestation Yasmina's Necklace is being unveiled at a timely juncture, Rohina Malik is far more excited about creating dialogue through her art than merely decrying societal injustice, whether on a micro or macro level.

"I believe the language of the play shapes things in a positive and beautiful way, prompting each viewer to ask, 'What can I do?'" while avoiding easy stereotypes."

Malik's ability to broach potent themes uniquely yet universally is one of the aspects that has Yasmina's Neckace director Ann Filmer eager to again share Malik's voice with patrons of the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, where Unveiled also premiered under Filmer's direction in 2009.

"At its heart, Yasmina's Necklace is a love story, between a Muslim man who has Americanized his name to Sam, strayed from his faith and lost his roots, and Yasmina, who is an Islamic Iraqi refugee along with her father.

"I generally am not partial to romantic comedies, but while being a very funny writer whose work is quite accessible, Rohina has really created a story we haven't seen before--involving the concept of contemporary arranged marriage, something quite foreign to me--but yet makes it universal."

Both Malik and Filmer are ecstatic over the 7-member cast they've assembled for the 5-week run, which happens to include actors I enjoyed in plays I picked as my 2nd, 3rd and 4th favorites of 2015.

Susaan Jamshidi, part of The Mecca Tales at Chicago Dramatists, stars as Yasmina, with Filmer noting that the actress has long accompanied the play's development, including as part of a reading that provoked the director's interest.

After playing alongside George Wendt and Tim Kazurinsky in Bruce Graham's excellent Funnyman last fall at Northlight Theatre--in Skokie, where both I and Rohina graduated from Niles North High School some years apart--Michael Perez embodies Sam, the son of an Iraqi father and Puerto Rican mother who imagines himself Italian.

According to Rohina, who spent her first 15 years in London, the daughter of an Pakistani mother and Indian father, it was important for her to reflect upon the Latino Muslim community, as notions of Islam being synonymous with Arabs or the Middle East ignore the truth that Indonesia and Pakistan are home to the world's largest Muslim populations, which globally exceed 1 billion people in many disparate locales.

And having recently found Mark Ulrich superb as an FBI Agent armed with riveting revelations in Hillel Levin's JFK docu-drama, Assassination Theater, I'm very much looking forward to his turn in Yasmina's Necklace, along with Miguel Nunez, Laura Crotte, Amro Salama and Salar Ardebili.

Ulrich also brings an existing connection with the playwright, having participated in early renditions of Unveiled before Filmer realized the material resonated greatest coming literally from Rohina's own voice.

According to the director, who founded the 16th Street Theater in 2007 and serves as its Artistic Director, audiences instantly came to love Rohina, and she believes patrons of diverse backgrounds and mindsets will again value Malik's insights, observations and unique perspectives.

"I'll never forget a young man, who had come as part of a group from a rural college, quite emotionally saying 'Thank you for this story' to Rohina after seeing Unveiled, admitting that she had helped to counter his negative assumptions about Muslims."

Taking pride in being the most affordable Equity (actors union) theater in Illinois--tickets are just $20, with a $2 discount for Berwyn residents--the 49-seat venue inside the Berwyn Cultural Center almost entirely presents new works, representing a diverse array of writers and themes meant to stimulate conversation.

"Theater is dialogue," states Filmer, while sharing that post-show discussions will take place after Thursday and Friday performances of Yasmina's Necklace. "The reason to put on a play is so audiences can talk about it afterward."

Dealing with a variety of issues, including religion, observance, loss of faith, assimilation, refugees, romance and more, Yasmina's Necklace will stimulate plenty of dialogue, according to Malik, who professes to feel no pressure to portray Muslims with any particular sensitivity, focusing instead on simply "telling the best story I can."

"Yasmina's Necklace is my favorite work so far. It has great characters, but every one has their flaws, and that's really what I'm trying to do, create human beings on stage that audience members of all backgrounds can identify with.
"With all the rhetoric going on right now, I'm happy to do what I can by presenting a play that will create dialogue. Not just about hate, but also things like the imbalance in the way Muslims are covered in the media, and are made to feel collectively complicit [when a terrorist act occurs], unlike Christians were after the Planned Parenthood attack."
Aligned with Malik and Filmer regarding the vital importance and insight of art--including highlighting our similarities far more than the minor differences that often form the basis for acrimony, vitriol and worse--I'm looking forward to seeing Yasmina's Necklace on its official opening weekend, and will write my review after.

On a dramatic level, I hope I like it as much as--or even more than--I did The Mecca Tales.

But if nothing else, I already admire what its author has to say.

Yasmina's Necklace by Rohina Malik, directed by Ann Filmer; January 21-February 27 at 16th Street Theater, Berwyn. Tickets and season subscriptions available through or 708-795-6704.

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