FEBRUARY 8, 2018 – Rohina Malik sees storytelling as a way to “remind us of our shared humanity.”
The London-born American Muslim writer-actress has taken her message to synagogues and even worked with noted Jewish storyteller Susan Stone. Now Malik is vividly articulating that reminder in an affecting and informative original one-woman piece entitled “Unveiled,” which recently completed a run at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown and continues at the Greater Boston Stage Company, formerly the Stoneham Theatre.
Donning distinctive hijabs to portray five ethnically diverse Muslim women serving various teas, Malik employs revealing vignettes that not only uncover their rich customs and striking modesty but also expose hate-filled, often violent post-9/11 reactions to them.
With the enhancing accompaniment of an oud (lute-like) and flute player, Malik opens with the reflections of Maryam, a Pakistani-American dressmaker. Explaining her hijab and a signature chocolate chai to a potential unseen client (in effect the audience), Maryam details the anti-Muslim assault on the groom of a bride for whom she designed a dress.
Ultimately, the disturbing tale, the humor-flavored tea-brewing, and the hopeful remembrance of the bride’s courage come together for listeners as well as Maryam.
Moroccan lawyer Noor recalls her conversion to Islam, a father-son clash over the latter’s choice of soulmate, and the venom of some adolescents. Transcending hatred and defying haters and their crimes, she invites her client to taste the sweetness of hope in a cup of mint tea.
In the third vignette, the play’s title adds an ironic meaning as African-American convert Inez – born and raised in Chicago, where Malik’s own family migrated – asks forgiveness from Allah for unveiling herself in the face of glaring non-Muslims and running home to protect herself and the child she is expecting. Calling this scenario of hatred and fear “every American’s problem,” she wisely warns, “Tomorrow could be yours.’’
Rap becomes a key instrument of fourth woman Shabana’s embrace of hijab and her faith. The West London-based daughter of South Asian emigres notes that a nun’s head covering is not controversial, unlike a Muslim’s. While her mother worries that wearing the hijab is unsafe, Shabana terms it “a statement of solidarity.’’
For the final vignette, Palestinian immigrant Layla speaks of a different kind of veil, one that very much should be removed: a veil of stereotyped misconception about Islam. This observant owner of a Middle Eastern restaurant, appealing to non-Muslims to “Get to know me,” asserts that murder is forbidden and reminds her listeners that “Islam means peace.”
At one moment she alludes to Abraham – regarded as a prophet in Islam – and Ishmael. At another she worries that a New York mob may threaten her children’s school. Even so, her insistence on the primacy of love and understanding is unchanging.
Malik moves as smoothly from character to character as she does from hijab to hijab. She also displays comic gifts during the light-hearted stretches about oranges and different teas.
Everyone is like to have a personal favorite among the vignettes – Laila’s complex approach to the aftermath of 9/11 is this critic’s choice. Still, her narrating and performing strengths – expressive gesturing, impressive vocal dynamics, and sharp timing – dress all five in elegance. With “Unveiled,” Malik covers all humanity with insight, understanding, and love.
“Unveiled” continues at the Greater Boston Stage Company, 395 Main St., Stoneham, through Feb. 16. Visit www.greaterboston.org.