(All photos of Nadio Parvez Manzoor.)
To give credit where credit is due, I need to preface this piece by saying that earlier in the afternoon of March 28th, I read two excellent articles on Howlround on artist’s voice and privilege, and the notion of “speaking for” a community or culture, both of which framed my interpretation of this piece.
And then, that evening, mulling those big questions of identity and theater, I arrived at Walkerspace to see a play chock full of cultural incertitude: a one-woman show called Burq Off! in which the main character narrates her childhood and adolescence growing up in a traditional Pakistani family in London, England. The space was simply yet transformatively draped in colorful swathes of cloth, creating a fort-like atmosphere with tones of a Muslim woman’s wardrobe. The audience was further ushered into the world of the play with the offering of complementary samosas and chai before the performance.
Significantly, we saw the silhouette of the performer before we heard her first word. Burq Off! tells the story of Nadia Manzoor, the playwright and performer, who felt restrained by the social and cultural mandates of her family and her religion, compared to the liberty and indulgence of her English peers’ teenaged life. Manzoor finally manages to carve out her own path (away from an arranged marriage at age eighteen), by convincing her father to allow her to go to university, three hundred miles away. There, Manzoor submits to typical freshman antics such as uncomfortably intense club meetings and her first taste of alcohol, and then meets her first serious boyfriend, Brendan. However, she has to hide her relationship with Brendan from her family because he is Irish Catholic and she is forbidden to date non-Muslim men. (I loved the chopping gesture Manzoor performed when she would imitate her Islam teacher sternly shouting, “Haram! Forbidden to you!”) Manzoor explores her feelings about her body, her sexual identity, her duties, and her future in a concise, comedic manner. She fluidly weaves Urdu and English together in the text, quickly demonstrating the cultural strife in which she found herself. Although Manzoor proved to be adept at navigating the distinct worlds of her family obligations and her local social life, she demonstrates how difficult her decisions were when it was impossible to reconcile the two realities.
A highlight of the performance was the repetition of her physical reaction when Manzoor discovers the liberty in the modesty of a burqa and in the exposure of a bikini. By drawing a parallel between these two cultural uniforms, she highlights how easy it is to acclimate to the demands of one’s culture, and how confusing it is for someone caught between cultural norms. I admire Manzoor’s open-mindedness, and her honesty about the difficulty of self-realization under the pressures of adolescence.
Her portrayals of numerous family members and friends, including her father, her mother, her twin brother, and her best friend Katie, were distinct and expressive, quickly creating a cast of characters with whom she could act out her stories. Manzoor traces her adolescent crushes, from her Pakistani cousin to a boy in her class named Gavin, with poignant sincerity, allowing the audience to swoon along with her for these invisible boys. In the spirit of a one-woman show, Manzoor maximized her resources, requiring the audience to use their imagination to fill in the specifics. For example, one of Manzoor’s most adept manipulations was to create costume (and character) changes with the repositioning of a single scarf. Overall, the audience was responsive and sympathetic, laughing and sighing at the appropriate moments. Due to the intimacy of the venue and the intensity of the conversations in the lobby after the performance, it felt like much of the audience had personal connection to the performer.
To return to the question of artist’s voice and privilege, I would love to know what Manzoor thinks about this version of telling her story. Does she feel she is speaking on behalf her culture, as well? Or does she see this performance entirely as the story of an individual experience? Did she tailor any piece of the show because her family members disapproved? And if so, would that be an instance of an individual’s denied right to free speech? Or a show of respect for her family’s rights against personal defamation?
New York City is a place that roils with diversity, and its inhabitants are familiar with stories of individuals questioning the different facets of their identity. The people of the United States are apt to understand the immigrant’s story, because, apart from the Native Americans, each and every family can drudge up their own story of cultural adjustment. And yet, the presentation of Manzoor’s story in New York adds another layer of complexity, because her family did not emigrate to the United States, but rather to London, where their social and cultural relationship with immigration is, conceivably, different. But now, here she is, in the United States, telling her story to a New York audience (within which I heard numerous British accents). Whom exactly is Manzoor trying to reach? Or perhaps, does she just have a story she needs to tell, no matter who is listening?
Although Manzoor presents herself as a rebel, defying the constraints of her patriarchal family and religion, and preferring the more Western cultural norms in which she was raised, she is clearly not belittling or dismissing her family’s culture. She depicts her acts of defiance as stemming from her own personal frustration with the constraints of her culture, not as universal flaws in Islam, or even in her own family. Her mother often acts as her quiet ally, particularly when Manzoor was showing adolescent signs of sexual curiosity. In addition, Manzoor depicts herself making choices to put her family first, of her own accord, such as leaving a long-awaited date with Brendan to go have lunch with her family. In the final beat, as Manzoor steps out the door, into space (à la Nora Helmer, to discover herself), she does not castigate her family, she simply acknowledges that she needs to determine her own path. And what could be more American than that?
At the end of the performance, when Manzoor’s father came on stage to join her for a final curtain call, I teared up. I can’t begin to imagine the layers of cultural kneading that this piece required for all those involved, and I applaud Manzoor for her honesty and her uncritical perspective. Instead, she laid her life’s facts out for the audience to observe, and left us to find our own emotional and moral path through it.