How Do You Be American, and How American Do You Want To Be?

Photo by Michael Dekker

I don’t ever go to the theater and expect to see myself on stage. When I go to the theater, I try to find myself in characters who look and sound nothing like me. Sometimes, I give up. And then, I think about how I am not the ‘target audience’ for that particular show. I think about how I am almost never the ‘target audience’ for any show I see. But usually, it’s only a matter of time before I am proven wrong. I go to the theater, expecting nothing in particular, and then all of a sudden – the stage becomes a mirror.

Veil’d, written by Monet Hurst-Mendoza and directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh, is a real-world fairy tale about an Afghani-American girl discovering herself in today’s Brooklyn. It runs through Saturday, November 18 at the Astoria Performing Arts Center (tickets $18). The piece was developed in part with Rising Circle Theater Collective, an organization whose mission is to support work that centers around the experiences of people of color. Many artists of color, myself included, struggle with the idea of making their work accessible to white audiences – Veil’d  proved that there is much to be gained by dismissing that very idea. The play itself is exquisitely relatable, but does not attempt to be universal – Hurst-Mendoza trusts her audience enough to show them something (and someone) they’ve never seen before.

Dima (Nikhaar Kishnani) is sixteen, full of life, and hidden from view – a rare skin condition which flares up in the sun has kept her in the confines of her family’s apartment for years. Her world is small, but her imagination is limitless. She picks at her dinner, but devours issues of National Geographic. And she wears her mother’s burqa – even at the dinner table, even alone in her bedroom. Even when her father begs her to take it off.

But this isn’t a family drama, it’s a love story. One day, a paper plane makes its way into Dima’s room through the window. It’s a poem, written by a prince (in a world where a boy with a fedora, a typewriter, and a penchant for puns qualifies as a prince). Instead of retreating back into herself, Dima pursues the relationship, mostly thanks to the advice of her new loyal sidekick, a talking shark named Speedo who she ordered online. Speedo (Kayla Jackmon) has come a long way and carries with her some very interesting ideas – that the deep sea is stifling despite its expanse, and that freedom is “that shrimp net and this tank”. Days pass and routines transform. The set (by Claire DeLiso) is a dreamy, marine blue underworld. At its best, the original music (by Teresa Lotz) sounds like something you might hear in an aquarium. In other moments, it only marks time. The puppet design (by Christine Schisano) is beautifully whimsical – Speedo is a particularly delightful creature, expressive and (like a shark) always in motion.

Dima’s parents give her so much space that she becomes alien to them. They project their fears and ambitions onto her in the form of a paradox – to be happy, Dima must be perfect, and to be perfect, Dima must be happy. This is the part of the play that speaks to me most. Assimilation isn’t easy, but it is a choice – just like the burqa Dima clings to. Dima’s mother (Sahar Bibiyan) makes Rice-a-Roni and macaroni and cheese with hot dogs for dinner, but the question of whether she has actually created a better life for their daughter still lives inside. What does a better life entail, for Dima? Harvard or Yale? The smell of the ocean at Rockaway Beach? Veil’d asks its audience what so many children of immigrants ask themselves every day: How do you be American, and how American do you want to be? I’m looking forward to someday seeing more characters like Dima onstage, navigating the question.

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