Archived Story

Playwright hopes to ‘unveil’ Islam

Published 3:53pm Tuesday, January 11, 2011 Updated 3:54pm Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Regular attendees at A Center for the Arts know that the center often brings in acts that give expression to cultures and ideas not often seen in Fergus Falls. On Saturday, however, the center will be bringing in a production that’s unique even by its own standards: “Unveiled,” a one-woman show about Muslim women, written and performed by Chicago playwright Rohina Malik.

Now in her early thirties, Malik was born and raised in London, England. Her father was from Pakistan, and her mother was from India, and the influences of their home countries combined with her UK upbringing to present Malik with a cross-cultural experience at an early age.

When she was 15, she moved to Chicago.

“I really discovered theater in high school and even before high school,” Malik explained. Her Chicago high school took theater very seriously, and Malik became more and more interested. Seeing her talent and her drive to succeed, she said, “My teachers were really a lot harder on me than the other students.”

That training allowed her to hone her craft, and she soon became interested in one-person productions as well.

Her theatrical endeavors were put on hold for several years, however, when she got married and had children. Her playwriting days may have been behind her for good, if not for an event that changed the world almost 10 years ago.

“What really got me back into theater was the negative backlash towards Muslims after 9/11,” said Malik, who is Muslim herself. She was discouraged by what she saw as stereotypical negative portrayals of all Muslims and all of Islam in the media after the terrorist attacks, and she was saddened and shocked by the crimes perpetrated against innocent Muslims in the following months – crimes that included harassment and even murder.

Malik herself was not immune to personal attacks. Shortly after Sept. 11, she was shouted at and sworn at in front of her children by a man who was angry that her head was covered. Around that incident, the seed of “Unveiled” began to grow.

That story and others are conveyed by the five women Malik plays in the show.

“The stereotype of Muslim women is a poor, oppressed … woman, and I wanted to show the women I actually knew in my world,” Malik said.

The five women in the play are a Middle Eastern restaurant owner, a Pakistani seamstress, a southern black convert in Texas, a London rapper and a Moroccan-American lawyer. As the play unfolds, all five women serve tea while discussing how their lives have changed after 9/11.

“Unveiled” certainly struck a chord in Chicago. The initial run of the show sold out, and Malik then performed another run at the important Victory Garden theater, which was a dream come true. She believes part of the show’s mass appeal comes from the realization that all five women are dealing with universal issues, concerns and desires.

“It’s very relatable, and I think in that sense it breaks stereotypes,” she said. She also added that the show, while containing moments of sadness and seriousness, is overall very funny, which can appeal to some who wouldn’t go see a dark piece of theater.

Seeing the messages of understanding and common ground spread from her play into the world has been very encouraging for Malik.

“One of the criticisms I often got was, ‘You’re preaching to the choir because people who go to the theater are really open-minded,’” Malik said. In reality, however, she has spoken to many men and women who have told her that the play has opened their eyes to Muslim culture in a new way. And that’s good news for everyone, she said.

“The most dangerous thing in the world is ignorance,” she commented.

She recalled one young man who approached her after the play and told her that he was from a small town and ashamed of his ignorance about Islam and Muslims. He believed, Malik explained, that Muslim women wore veils to celebrate 9/11. In tears, he told her he would return home and tell his mother and other friends and relatives about what “Unveiled” had taught him.

“If he impacts his mom, and she impacts another, it could create a ripple effect,” said Malik. “People underestimate the power of art.”

Malik’s show is coming to Fergus Falls through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to A Center for the Arts. The play was recommended to the center by a playwright named John Adams, who A Center for the Arts has worked with in the past.

Administrative Assistant Kristin Fondriest said she’s excited to see how Fergus Falls will respond to the show.

“We hope that … because it’s not something that is very common here, that it will incite people’s curiosity, and I hope people will take advantage of this opportunity to learn more,” she said. “We’re hoping it will maybe start some dialogue in our community.”

Malik will also speak at the Unitarian Universalist church in Underwood on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. A Center for the Arts is seeking to spread the word about the show through members there, as well as internationally-minded Fergus Falls residents and residents interested in theater. Tickets are $12 in advance and $14 at the door. Student and children tickets are $5 anytime.

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