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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

All Atheists Are Muslim: It's Love vs. Religion in Zahra Noorbakhsh's Fresh, Clever Play

Posted By on Tue, Sep 6, 2011 at 11:25 AM

click to enlarge ANDRIA LO
  • Andria Lo

In All Atheists Are Muslim, her autobiographical solo show now in revival at Stage Werx, Zahra Noorbakhsh chronicles characters that, in other hands, might seem too predictable to make for an interesting story: herself, a theater student and gender studies aficionado who relies on her parents for financial support; Duncan, her "translucently" white atheist boyfriend who's ready to move in with her but who balks at marriage (and even words that sound like it); Assad, her Iranian father, who rejects any romantic relationship not sanctified by a traditional Muslim wedding.

We've seen this set-up before. God-crossed lovers must navigate the conflict between traditional and contemporary ideologies and the wills of different people they care about, even as they themselves struggle to define how it is they feel about one another. But in Noorbakhsh's rendering, the familiar narrative feels nuanced, clever--and even fresh.

Noorbakhsh could probably make anything seem new. In performance, she is contagiously ebullient, sometimes enthusiastic to the point of clumsiness. Dancing from foot to foot and swinging her arms instead of holding a pose, opening her already huge eyes so wide that the whites overwhelm the pupils, she is endearingly unpolished, eminently accessible-- the kind of performer who would share her story in the exact same way were she in your living room or getting introduced to you on the street.

That includes her imitation of Assad's accent (and his fondness for the words "shit" and "man"), the delicious way she riffs in singsong on the question, "what exactly...are we protecting...with a marriage contract?" and the boxing match she stages between her copy of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble and Assad's laser-shooting Koran.

This refreshing lack of artifice lets her story transcend its initial confines. Her characters don't merely embody belief systems. Instead they believe as real people do, less out of unadulterated faith than out of a desire for identity, clinging to beliefs when advantageous and compromising when it's not (even going so far, as the show's title suggests, to conflate theism and atheism).

When Assad posits the inevitable dichotomy-- Duncan, or god --it's Zahra's understanding of what her father's really asking, the falsity of the choice and the consequences of choosing that elevate her story. Then she can get back to comparing marriage to animal husbandry and imitating Assad--even though, as he says, "her accent is like a shit."

All Atheists Are Muslim continues through Oct. 1 at Stage Werx Theatre in San Francisco. Admission is $20. Incidentally, the show is directed by W. Kamau Bell, who writes an online column for SF Weekly, but he's never met our critic or anything.

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Lily Janiak

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