Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Goodman Falls in Love: On a Larger Stage, 'Yasmina's Necklace' Continues to Sparkle -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Yasmina's Necklace
by Rohina Malik
directed by Ann Filmer
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru November 19

The titular character of Yasmina’s Necklace is an unwed adult Chicagoan who is especially close with her sole living parent.

She loves the art of Pablo Picasso, the music of Bruce Springsteen and desserts sold by Trader Joe’s.

She has a sharp wit, strong convictions, an assertive sense of self and the desire to help those less fortunate, yet is beset by insecurities, openly references herself as “not normal” and engages in creative endeavors for therapeutic sustenance.

All of which, except for her gender, makes Yasmina very much like me.

And perhaps you.

But bespeaking the shrewdness of Rohina Malik’s excellent play—now being staged at Chicago's prestigious Goodman Theatre after premiering last year at Berwyn's 16th Street Theater with much the same cast, likewise under the direction of Ann Filmer—Yasmina also happens to be a hijab-wearing Muslim who has survived a torturous and tragic past before arriving in America as an Iraqi refugee with her father Musa.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
Which is why Yasmina's Necklace reflects what I see as theater's greatest value:

Not only to challenge our way of thinking but--as with travel and certain TV, film, books, journalism, etc.--to help us understand the vast similarities that accompany skin-deep differences and to prompt the realization that everyone we encounter has a backstory to which we're oblivious.

Malik, who I have come to know via seeing and reviewing her three produced plays to date--Unveiled, The Mecca Tales and Yasmina's Necklace, which I had seen in Berwyn--and interviewing her for a pair of insightful Seth Saith profiles (2015, 2016), is a writer particularly deft at this.

Although she is Muslim and a playwright, who has focused quite enlighteningly on Islamic characters in her works, it feels a bit short-changing to call her a "Muslim playwright," if only because doing such might make some--even well beyond the outright bigoted--incorrectly assume her plays won't be readily identifiable or relevant to their own lives.

But as director Filmer pointed out in a Sunday afternoon discussion about the play with Malik and moderator Maudlyne Ihejirika of the Chicago Sun-Times, when the Goodman recently staged a brilliant interpretation of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge, it's doubtful anyone thought of it as an "Italian play," even though it chronicles Italian-American characters.

Perhaps in the mid-'50s when Miller wrote it, the ethnicity he focused on may have rolled some eyes, but now A View From the Bridge is presumably regarded as one of the master's parables depicting families--of various backgrounds--such as Death of a Salesman, All My Sons and The Price.

Certainly, it is too early in Rohina Malik's playwriting career to compare her too directly with Arthur Miller--who I consider the greatest practitioner of the art short of Shakespeare--but Yasmina's Necklace is similar in its specific characters also being universal, and in the play working on several levels.

As it begins, a young businessman named Sam (Michael Perez, excellent here as in Berwyn and other roles I've seen) is getting grief from his Muslim parents due to his hesitancy to meet Yasmina (Susaan Jamshidi, also in a brilliant reprise), as they want him to.

With rather zestful sniping reminiscent of first-rate sitcom dialogue--and families of any heritage--Ali (Amro Salama), an Iraqi immigrant, and his Puerto Rican wife, Sara (Laura Crotte), who converted to Islam in college, are also upset that Sam has Americanized his name for career purposes, from Abdul Sameer. (Salama and Crotte are also 16th Street holdovers and terrifically so.)

Though clearly loving, Sam's headstrong folks appear far more concerned about the ridicule his recently-ended "love marriage" to a non-Muslim woman has brought upon them than his own resultant depression and the pharmacological cocktail he takes to combat it.

Sam's first encounter with Yasmina, who lives with her father Musa (Rom Barkhordar)--a dentist in Iraq relegated to driving a taxi in Chicago--goes about as poorly as both have insisted it will, resistant as they are to being set-up by their well-meaning yet quite persistent parents.

And a bit akin to the central Eddie character in A View From the Bridge, Sara--who has accompanied Sam, Ali and a local Imam (Allen Gilmore) in meeting Yasmina and Musa--demonstrates that even those within ostracized cultures can often treat others in their own community with prejudice.

But though upon learning that Yasmina is a refugee and her dad a cabbie, Sam's mom quickly becomes less enthused about the courtship than he is, at their first meeting Sam compliments Yasmina's paintings infused by the ravages of war--strikingly created in actuality by Ahmad Abdulrazzaq--and also offers a friend's assistance toward her plans for a charitable organization for refugees.

This provides narrative rationale for Sam and Yasmina to meet again, and though what happens from there can largely be surmised, on this second viewing I found Malik's script to be strongest--despite much humor, observation and poignancy throughout--when Yasmina guilelessly speaks of her trepidations, made all the more powerful by Jamshidi's unflinching performance.

Great theater should surprise you--and this play probably does so more on a sociocultural level than in terms of dramatic twists--but even more so, it should connect with you.

And in Sam calling himself a "salad" due to his multicultural mix, Yasmina's identification with the fractured figures of Picasso's Cubist paintings due to her horrific past--revealed onstage in ways I'll let you discover--or through the African-American Imam's frankness about serving a largely Arab community because it is where opportunity led, much of what happens in Yasmina's Necklace should resonate with you.

...whether you are Italian or Polish or Irish or Korean or Indian or Jewish or Catholic or Muslim or a mutt of any racial or religious combination.

I've repeatedly heard Malik share that one of her main motivations as a playwright is a desire to enhance perceptions of Muslims, who she notes are typically portrayed as "the three B's"--billionaires, bad guys or belly dancers--but never just people.

Or families.

So combining her own experiences--including, as a jumping off point in this case, being friends with a Puerto Rican Muslim married to an Arab--with plenty of research and rewrites, she has aimed to illustrate that those of the Islamic faith merit recognition as individuals and are vastly different from one another (is everyone of your religion an extremist?) yet have universal commonalities with those of other backgrounds.

As such, each primary character in Yasmina's Necklace is both beautiful and damaged, loving and imperfect, hopeful and hurting and ultimately, like the rest of us--to quote the Boss as the show itself does, to my delight--just "Dancing in the Dark."

With balcony seats in the Goodman's Owen Theater starting at just $10--I sat up there with my mom & sister and found both sight & sound to be perfectly fine--there is no good reason not to see Yasmina's Necklace.

Especially any notion that it is about people who aren't really like you.

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