Unveiled may not be the most spectacular play to hit Boston this new year, but so far it is undoubtedly the most affecting.
Written and performed by Rohina Malik, Unveiled shares the stories of five different Muslim women and their experiences in a post-9/11 America. It’s the first professional play that the London-born, Chicago-based Malik ever wrote, and she’s been performing it around the country ever since it premiered at Chicago’s 16th Street Theater in 2009. There is ample opportunity to catch it here in Boston: It plays through Jan 28 at the New Repertory Theater in Watertown and will then play Stoneham’s Greater Boston Stage through Feb 16.
The five stories are largely inventions of Malik, though elements are grounded in real events and actual displays of hatred, including one such display that she encountered while trying to attend a friend’s wedding with her two children.
We meet Maryam first, a Pakistani immigrant who is told to “take that shit off [her] head” as she arrives at her friend’s wedding. “If you’re an American, dress like one,” the man yells after her. Her first instinct is to just keep on walking, but she turns around to confront the man when she decides that she cannot allow herself or her children to be treated like they aren’t human.
Noor is a Moroccan-American born and raised in Chicago who falls in love with a boy at her school after he defends her against bullies that pull off her hijab, and Inez is an African-American convert to Islam who recalls the looks she got from people on Sept 11, the day that—she says—her rights as an American were stolen by her fellow Americans.
Shabana is a South Asian rapper whose mother used to make her rub lemons on her face as a child to brighten her skin. Through her music, she longs to address what she calls a global problem, where generation after generation of girls are taught to hate their black skin.
Lastly there is Layla, a Palestinian immigrant who recalls pleading on Sept 11, “Please, Allah, make it be a mistake.” When she sees a friend being beat up on the street while trying to enter a mosque, she intercedes and begs the bully to get to know her before passing judgement and to remove the veil from his heart.
Lifting the veil from our hearts is what Malik sets out to do with Unveiled, and there is little doubt that she is successful on that front. The marvel of her work can be found not just in her characters’ anecdotes that highlight the struggles and hatred that plague the Muslim community (furthered by our media and our president), but in the way in which she communicates the everyday grace and courage that his hatred is often met with.
If there is any criticism to be found it is only that Unveiled sometimes feels less like a work of theater and more like an educational vehicle intended for schools and field trips. Indeed, Malik has crisscrossed the country over the last few years performing Unveiled at different places of worship, schools, and theaters. But given the amount of time that she has spent performing it, there is sometimes a stiltedness to her performance that places an emotional cap on some of the more gripping moments. This production does not have a director, and it’s hard to imagine that her performance wouldn’t be even more stirring with a bit of vision and shaping.
Still, Malik has fashioned a deeply resonant and profoundly moving play that feels especially crucial in this age of Trump. The theme of New Repertory Theatre’s current season is “resilience.” Let’s hope next season’s is “resistance.”
UNVEILED. THROUGH 1.28 AT NEW REPERTORY THEATER, 321 ARSENAL ST., WATERTOWN. NEWREP.ORG. 2.7–2.16 AT GREATER BOSTON STAGE, 395 MAIN ST., STONEHAM. GREATERBOSTONSTAGE.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.