Burqa in Limelight: Burqavaganza Performance in San Francisco
By A.H. Cemendtaur
Reviewing ‘Burqavaganza’ as performed in San Francisco on June 2, a reporter without knowing about the playwright, and without the benefit of listening to the Q&A session with the writer, would be justified in considering the show to be actively seeking controversy, an in-your-face assertion of freedom-of-speech right, employing the time-tested formula for instant fame through ridiculing ideas espoused by millions. But if the scribe personally knows Shahid Nadeem and is familiar with his other work, and the reviewer sat through the Q&A session after the performance, he would be in a better position to dig deeper, and he is.
He understands that Burqavaganza in San Francisco was only a partial enactment of a much longer play, that ‘Burqavaganza’ is about much more than highlighting creeping fundamentalism in Pakistan, or about marginally educated religious scholars eager to play a much bigger role in the society, than their stature —Shahid Nadeem’s ‘Burqavaganza’ is an equal opportunity basher of all kinds of Burqa; it wants to lift the veil off every hypocrisy in the world, be that of Islamic leaders who blare about the respect of women in Islam but use tools to further their misogynist agenda, or that of Western leaders who talk about liberty, freedom, and fairness, but wage wars to subjugate people and steal from other nations.
Burqavaganza has a simple story — and giving away the story is not a concern since the real meat of the play is its dialogs. Two lovers (Barnali Ghosh as Haseena; Rakesh Modi as Khoobroo) avoid detection by the police (Amit Sharma, Ferman Haider) and the Burqa Brigade (Deergha Sahni and others) that is after ‘immoral behavior.’ The love affair culminates in marriage followed by the birth of a child whose gender is hard to be determined, while a terrorist named ‘Burqa Bin Batin’ (Munaf Alsafi) gets killed and two mullahs (Munaf Alsafi and Nandini Minocha) keep issuing funny edicts (all faithfully copied by the playwright from Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s ‘Bahishti Zewar’) related to titillating matters of marriage and sex. The three bigger strands of the story (and there are several smaller ones) -- the love affair, the terrorist in hiding, and the religious scholars fantasizing about sexual matters —never intersect in the play, but each packs its own set of witty remarks and humor to keep the audience continually amused.
Shotwell Studio, the venue, is an elongated rectangular hall on the second floor of a building, reached by narrow stairs. Like other places in San Francisco, finding street parking near Shotwell is next to impossible. Just two blocks from Shotwell Studio, UCSF has plenty of public parking, but the event flyer did not mention anything about it —consequently many people spent a lot of time looking for parking and presumably several left without seeing the show because they could not find parking.
Even in the ‘workshop performance’ of the play when most actors held the script in their hands, some performers showed more motivation by memorizing their lines -- Sukanya Mehra (playing the mother of Haseena) being one of them. There seemed to be a problem with the font size of the printed script — at least one actor (Munaf Alsafi) was obviously having a hard time reading the print.
Most directing decisions of the play appeared appropriate save for the use of a female in the role of a mullah — why Ferman Haider and Nandini Minocha’s roles could not be swapped? The performance had plenty of well-placed Bollywood music and dances (Rann Shinar, Dance Choreographer; playback songs with occasional singing by Leslie Schneider).
Shahid Nadeem’s play ‘Burqavaganza’ was a sold out show in San Francisco. The workshop partial performance of the play (translated into English, from Urdu) was directed by veteran director Vidhu Singh [with Stage Manager, Junelle-Johannah Taguas; Publicity by Sarah Lucia Kanga; Production Support provided by Susan Shireen Kanga; Karen Llagas as Production Assistant; Costume Design by Deborah Sciales & Oliver Lowe; and Jacob Max Nasim as the MC.] The play was presented by RasaNova Theater and Friends of South Asia (FOSA) in association with Footloose at Shotwell. Considering that the June 2 performance of Burqavaganza was put together in the short time of two weeks, the show was nothing short of brilliant.
See photos here:
Listen to an interview of Shahid Nadeem here:
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