In Alana Valentine’s Soft Revolution, Meera Narasimhan as Aunt Sarrinah cooks a feast of Afghani foods for herself and her niece Shafana (Nayab Hussain). After the production you will find a dish waiting for you. It is delicious; Narasimhan has an excellent touch. Regrettably, Valentine’s play remains undercooked.
The principal business of Soft Revolution revolves around Shafana’s decision to wear the hijab, the traditional Muslim head cover of female modesty, and her Aunt Sarrinah’s profound dismay at that decision. Both Shafana and Sarrinah are Afghans who have immigrated to Australia by way of India; Shafana is a thoroughly assimilated graduate student (apparently in marine biology), and Sarrinah is an engineer who has struggled to become credentialed in Australia.
There are half a dozen good reasons to wear the hijab, including to show solidarity with fellow Muslims in the face of irrational fear and hostility, or to oppose objectification by men, or to be in harmony with the holy Quran. Had Shafana’s decision been motivated by any of these reasons, or for any other specific reason, the play would have been undergirded with conflict and tension, but the most we can tell from the text is that Shafana has been inspired to renew her faith, and thus to put on this garment.
Similarly, there are many good reasons not to wear the hijab, including the absolute right of women to be comfortable (and even sexual!) in their bodies, the practical consideration of the economic consequences to making a bold Islamic statement in the secular, post 9/11 West, in which many associate devout Islam with terrorism, and the simple desire to be recognized for one’s own accomplishments, rather than one’s (locally) unusual dress. But Sarrinah, who at first refuses to take a position on the hijab, flits from response to response, and in the end appears to ground her opposition in her experience of wearing not a hijab but a chador, which she rejected not for religious reasons but for reasons of comfort.
Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah
closes December 11, 2016
Details and tickets
So what we have in this play is conflict, but not for reasons that the audience can understand. There is a dramatic shift in Sarrinah’s relationship with Shafana when Shafana brings out her hijab, but the dialogue between the two characters has been so sweet and supportive to this point that Sarrinah’s reaction seems staged.
Thus the audience struggles to understand Shafana’s decision, Sarrinah’s reaction, and the consequences of all of it. Hussain and Narasimhan are both excellent with the dialogue assigned to them — Narasimhan is brilliant in describing Sarrinah’s escape from Afghanistan — but their conversations lacked authenticity on the day I saw the show. Part of the problem is the awkward dialogue. (In ten years of reviewing DC theater, the only time I saw good acting redeem bad dialogue was Olney’s production of Rancho Mirage, where a brilliant cast made Steven Dietz’s awful dialogue plausible). Hussain and Narasimhan do their best, but they cannot make their exchanges sing.
By a substantial margin, the principal barrier to satisfaction is Valentine’s writing. She has a poetic touch, but her failure to settle on the elements of a discernable conflict, with sharply-defined points of view, sink the play, at least in its present form. Soft Revolution has a few additional problems. Valentine takes her time getting to the play’s maguffin, and the first couple of scenes seem pointless and uninteresting. Valentine also vaults from one time period to another, interrupting the play’s present tense with unannounced visits to the past, including a passage shortly after Sarrinah arrives in Australia (and was forced to work in a factory while waiting for affirmation of her engineering degree), and another in the wake of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
The play does a sort of catch-and-release with ideas, including even the titular concept (“the soft revolution” refers to an effort by young Western Muslims to embody and advance the themes of love and compassion which underlie the Quran. Shafana endorses the concept, but the two don’t talk about it after that.)
Deborah Randall, usually the surest of sure hands in the director’s chair, here obscures more than illuminates. As with virtually all of Venus Theatre’s plays, the action occurs in the middle of the venue, with three rows of seats on each side. From where I sat, one actor frequently blocked the other, and for much of the time one or both actors had their backs to me.
The experience of Muslims in modern Western society offers writers a nourishing banquet, and some playwrights have already indulged, to our advantage. The ingredients are there, in Soft Revolution, but the meal is not made, and it will take some work before it is as tasty as the food from Aunt Sarrinah’s kitchen.
Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah by Alana Valentine . Directed by Deborah Randall . Featuring Nayab Hussain and Meera Narasimhan . Set design by Amy Rhodes and Deborah Randall . Lighting design by Amy Rhodes . Sound design by Neil McFadden . Costumes and props by Deborah Randall . Produced by Venus Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.