Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Who & the What at Gulfshore Playhouse

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar. It's an incredibly powerful play with its themes of identity, assimilation and cultural appropriation. And so I jumped at the chance to see Akhtar's "The Who & the What" at Gulfshore Playhouse. While the play didn't strike as deep a chord as "Disgraced" did, it was another thought-provoking afternoon of theater.

Rasha Zamamiri as Zarina and Rajesh Bose as Afzal
The characters in the show are Afzal, his daughters Zarina and Mahwish, and Zarina's suitor Eli (whom her father found for her on Muslimlove.com). The primary plotline revolves around a book Zarina is writing about how Muslim women came to wear hijabs, a practice she feels "erases" them.  She believes the genesis of the tradition can be found in an encounter between Mohamad and Zaynab, his daughter-in-law who later became his wife. According to the story (which is disputed by some Islamic scholars), Mohamad came upon Zaynab in a state of undress and told her how beautiful she was. When Zaynab relayed his comments to her husband, Zayd offered to divorce Zaynab in order to permit his father to marry her. Mohamad accepted his offer, and Zaynab became his seventh wife. At their wedding feast, Allah conveyed to Mohamad a new verse for the Qaran that stated,"When you ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a screen." From then on, Muslim women wore veils (which took the place of screens). To Zarina, it was Mohamad's lust for Zaynad (which her book describes in great detail) rather than the word of Allah that resulted in the offending tradition.

The book and its blasphemous ideas have significant repercussions for the characters. (Although a fatwa was not issued, it called to mind the controversy over Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" that kept Rushdie in hiding for nearly a decade.) Akhtar makes it clear that Zarina understood the potential for the book's explosive impact by her reluctance to tell people about what she was writing. 

The 90-minute play was very involving, and all of the actors were topnotch. I did, however, wonder why Zarina was so obsessed with the hajib since the females in her family (including her mother) did not wear a veil. Even more significantly, why didn't she publish the book under a pseudonym to avoid subjecting her family to the consequences of her actions?  

Professor Mohamad Al-Hakim
The performance was followed by a discussion with FGCU philosophy professor Mohamad Al-Hakim, which would have been worth the price of admission on its own. To Al-Hakim, the play was about the dangers of patriarchy, which of course is not unique to Islam.  He talked about the role of skepticism in religion and politics and, well, life, and its power to actually deepen one's beliefs. He argued against use of the word "tolerance" as it implies both a power differential and a negative moral judgment. (He advocated instead for "recognition" of different views and lifestyles.) And he raised the question of whether absolute truths really matter.  Janice and I were ready to sign up for his class.

I applaud Gulfshore Playhouse for presenting topical plays like "The Who & the What," which runs through this week-end. And I note that the theater will take on Lucas Hnath's "The Christians" next season. I saw the show at last year's Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, and it definitely got under my skin.  It's worth keeping on your theatrical radar screen.    

No comments:

Post a Comment

Taking a Look at Punta Gorda's History

Let's face it -- Most people are not going to visit a town's historical society and pore through dusty tomes to learn about bygone d...