Rohina Malik was inspired to write and perform “Unveiled,” her one-woman play about five different Muslim women — which is streaming online one more time this evening at 7 p.m. at Premiere Stages at Kean — because “I was concerned about the negative stereotyping of Muslims in our TV shows and movies,” she said via Zoom in the live talk-back after this afternoon’s streaming of the taped play. “ My community was always depicted as the bad guys. I rarely saw just regular people.”
But it’s not just what she saw on screens that got her going. The first of the five monologues in the play, she says, was based on something that happened to her personally. Her character Maryam, a Pakistani immigrant living in Chicago who works as a seamstress, tells her client that she won’t make a wedding dress for her – and then she relates the story that explains why. On her way to her best friend’s wedding, she was insulted and almost assaulted because she was wearing a hijab. (“Take that trash off your head,” Malik impersonates the man who accosted Maryam.) “I haven’t been able to design wedding dresses since that day.” But then, recalling how her friend recited a Rumi poem to get her to dance, she cheers up and changes her mind. She will make her client a wedding dress after all. “And you’re in luck. Some fabric has just arrived from Karachi.”
And that is more or less the approach of all the stories told by the five main characters in Malik’s hour-long series of monologues – a Moroccan-American lawyer, a Southerner who becomes religious, a South Asian rapper living in London, the owner of a Middle Eastern restaurant in Chicago. As distinct as they are, all the characters wear the hijab, head covering (as does Malik), and they all serve a different variety of tea (which, when Malike performs on stage, are offered to the theatergoers) The stories they tell are all traumatic, most of the traumas far worse than an almost-assault. But then the character finds the strength to go on.
Noor, the Moroccan-American lawyer, learns from her Mama: “Never say “Why me?” Instead ask, “What for?””
In one of the several moments of humor, Inez, the Southerner, recalls: “My grandma raised me to be tough as nails. I can still hear her voice, ‘Inez, you better learn to be tough, cuz you were born with two strikes against you, you’re brown, and you’re female.’ When I turned twenty one I told grandma that I reverted to Islam, she just rolled her eyes and said ‘Strike Three.’”
Layla, the restaurant owner, is called a terrorist by a screaming mob after 9/11. She grabs a young man who has hit one of her friends, and says: “Remove the veil from your heart. You see, I wear veil on my head, but my heart is not covered, I can see the signs of God, they are everywhere.”
Malik has been performing “Unveiled” since 2009, in theaters across the country (in New York in 2015) and in universities and places of worship (mosques, but also synagogues and churches.)
I ask her whether mass media depictions of Muslims haven’t changed in the decade since she began with “Unveiled,” and bring up “Ramy,” the television series on Hulu created by and starring Ramy Youssef.
“A lot of Muslims are celebrating ‘Ramy,” she says. “It’s a light beautiful show. I have been so vocal over the last 10 years and finally now there is a step in the right place.”