by Dan Kitrosser · January 17, 2015
“A woman should be self-conscious,” says Nadia, as she portrays her father, whom she calls Abbu, commenting on how young Nadia is ‘big-boned’ in Burq Off! the entertaining and important solo-show by Nadia P Mandzoor, now playing at the Teatro Circulo on East 4th street. But there’s a greater resonance to this line and to much of what comes out of the myriad of people Nadia remembers in this impressive, thought provoking and impassioned solo-show about one woman’s journey from orthodoxy in the British-Muslim world to progressivism in the world beyond it. And though Abbu’s statement, which occurs early on in the evening, shows how oppressive the patriarchal world Nadia grew up was, it also lays the groundwork for a woman who becomes obsessively self-conscious and then suddenly conscious of her cloistered environment and how those two worlds cannot sustain one another.
Against a gorgeous set made of a mosaic of Burqas designed by Mitchell Ost, Nadia tells us her real life story of growing up in London and secretly breaking the rules of Islam up until the tree bends no more and she must both confront her family and let her family confront her all while impersonating dozens of characters along the way (some highlights include her snot-nosed brother, an Islamist tutor who is both pious and perverse, and her posh white friend, Katy, who gets her into all sorts of trouble). Even as a little girl, Nadia saw some contradictions in her strict upbringing: her mother, whom she calls Ammi, who never lets her watch anything other than Bollywood films, would obsessively watch Dallas. Abbu, meanwhile, berates Nadia for her impropriety all the time, yet it is her father’s copy of playboy which Nadia finds in the bathroom. In a hilarious exchange, their Islamic tutor discovers Nadia holding the dirty magazine and chastises her while oggling the naked pictures. After a series of these contradictory instances, the stage is set for Nadia to separate from her family, which she is finally able to do by going to Manchester University 300 miles away. It is here where she finally removes her Burqa, where she falls in love with an Irishman who proposes to her and where she realizes that she can’t hold on to these traditions anymore--their meaning to her is one of oppression, not of spiritualism.
Directed by Tara Elliot, Burq Off! is a tour de force of performance and some stage magic. All of the props (from Burqas, to newspapers, to lists of commandments) are made of the fabrics which drape the show, a conceit so simple but so powerful in its execution. Elliot brings a grace to the piece which flows evenly from Nadia’s childhood to her adulthood. Nadia P Manzoor as a performer is engaging, funny, sensitive and versatile. While at times her movement from one character to the next is a bit labored, she still is able to embody with precision each of these varied people, to much humorous and tragic success. And while it is hard not to root for Nadia as she engages with this Wonderland filled with larger-than-life characters, I did feel at times their broadness was theatrically successful, but lacked a depth of understanding. The father was always portrayed as harsh, her friend Katy always portrayed as over the top and slightly racist, her twin brother always antagonistic. For all I know, this very well may be true to her experience, but as Nadia comes into a consciousness that is greater than the world from which bore her, I found myself hoping for her to find the pain that created these monsters she had to withstand. The one exception to the list of caricatures was that of Nadia’s mother, who begins as the same contradiction in terms as the other characters, but whose pain of isolation slowly leaks out, such that by the end of the play, a character whom we laughed at, we now love. In a powerful moment which I will not detail the circumstance, when Nadia reveals her romance with a white man, her mother offers her some kindness, “Whatever makes you happy, Jaanu. The sky is very big, beta. Maybe we can both be astronauts.”
Her embodiment of her own mother was funny, charming, strong and sad, filled with empathy and judgment, as good as any storyteller can be from Lisa Kron to Salmon Rushdie to David Sedaris. One hopes as Nadia continues to grow with the show that every character will deepen and that her consciousness will continue to expand.
Nadia P Manzoor has an important story to tell, and I look forward to hearing her continue to tell it.