A funny and deeply moving love story

Theater Review

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By Doug Deuchler

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I keep running into people who enjoy theater yet have never experienced the fine work produced at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn. Their current world premiere of Rohina Malik's outstanding Yasmina's Necklace grabs you from its first moments. This play, tightly directed by Ann Filmer, is the first in their ninth season, which focuses on the theme of loyalty. With this show the issue is family loyalty. 

The production is often hilarious yet also deeply moving — about two different Muslim families making their home in contemporary Chicago. If you see this unique American love story, you'll experience the sense of shared humanity that strong writing and acting can provide. The insight into the refugee experience Malik's work provides is profound and beautiful. You'll truly care about these vivid characters and find yourself thinking about them long after you've left the theater.

For the past decade and a half, since 9/11, the media has bombarded us with the pollution of fear-mongering about Muslim refugees. Iraqi people continue to be associated with war and terrorism. It's no surprise that there has been a rise in hate crimes and even bigoted proposals by politicians (or would-be politicians) to deny Muslims entry to the United States. Those refugees already living here endure ongoing suspicion and thinly veiled hatred. 

Yasmina's Necklace leaps right into a family argument. A Muslim couple want their grown son "to marry a nice Muslim girl" and "restore this family's dignity." They feel humiliated because their only son has not only divorced the American girl he'd married in Las Vegas but has also changed his name to Sam from Abdul Samee to avoid "the racism of the corporate world." 

Sam's divorced status taints him with "the best" families. Sara (Laura Crotte) and Ali (Amro Salama), Sam's parents, are pressuring him into an old-style arranged marriage. They believe true love blossoms after the wedding. But their son (Michael Perez) wants no part of any of this. 

Writer Malik, a Pakistani-American, avoids easy stereotypes. Sara, the mother, is a Latina Muslim, originally from Puerto Rico. Ali and Sara's son has lost track of his roots and, in fact, has turned his back on his heritage. 

Crotte is especially funny as an outspoken, bulldozer mom who wants the best for her son yet still maintains lofty standards of social position. When Sara discovers that Yasmina, the wife-to-be, and her unemployed father are Iraqi refugees, she is annoyed and antagonistic. She feels that is beneath her son to marry into this family. Sara also claims Yasmina's paintings prove she's "mentally unstable."

Among its many strengths, this new work highlights some of the conflicts that can occur within the branches of ethnic groups. There is no group of people that is a monolith with a single identity for all.

The initial set-up of the proposed arranged marriage reminded me of the recent film documentary Meet the Patels, but it's so much more once the plot begins to deepen. Yasmina, touchingly portrayed by Susaan Jamshidi, is a bright, strong-willed woman who paints to ease her pain and is seeking to establish a support group for fellow Iraqi refugees. She is very put off by Sam's rejection of his Muslim culture and identity. Sam refers to her as a FOB (Fresh Off the Boat). Yasmina calls him an SOB. 

Yasmina's protective, widower father, played by Mark Ulrich, had been a successful dentist in Baghdad, but here in Chicago he cannot work professionally. He hopes to eventually be able to drive a taxi cab. 

Salar Ardebill is strong in flashback scenes as Yasmina's close friend in Iraq. Miguel Nunez is funny and wise as a religious leader from their mosque who acts as the matchmaker for Sam and Yasmina.

Yasmina claims she's not "the marrying type." Her scenes with Sam are full of sparks and barbs. She has a deep pride in her Iraqi identity and culture. Yet one senses she is more deeply wounded than even her father may know. 

Playwright Malik, early in the war with Iraq more than a decade ago, was inspired by a grocery store clerk who wore a pendant necklace in the shape of the country, inscribed boldly with "IRAQ."

Yasmina's artwork on stage has been created by Megan Bonke.

 Malcolm Callan is assistant director and understudy. Joanna Iwanicka designed the set, which simulates a variety of locations. Cat Wilson designed the lighting, Rachel Sipniewski the costumes, Jessica Mondres the props, and Barry Bennet the original music and sound.

Wendye Clarendon is the stage manager. Rick Torres is the box office manager.

The audience can participate in a post-show discussion following the Thursday and Friday performances. 

Yasmina's Necklace provides a vivid experience that can change how you view issues of immigration and other related situations. The well-acted drama covers a lot of ground, from assimilation to generational conflict. But ultimately it is a wonderful love story that is moving and insightful. 

Don't miss it.

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