Post-Play Palaver: ‘Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah’ at Venus Theatre

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Post-Play Palaver is an occasional series of conversations between DCMetroTheaterArts writers who saw the same performance, got really into talking about it, and decided to continue their exchange in writing. That’s what happened when Senior Writers and Columnists Michael Poandl and John Stoltenberg (Magic Time!) saw the new production of Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah by Alana Valentine, playing through December 18 at Venus Theatre Company.

L to R: John Stoltenberg and Michael Poandl.

Michael: I’ve been attending shows at Venus for a few years now, since you introduced them to me, John! It’s a remarkable gem in the DC-area theatre landscape. It’s a small, storefront, feminist, avant-garde women’s theatre in the middle of Old Town Laurel, Maryland. You drive through a slice of Pleasantville to get there, sit down on the couches or the red movie theatre chairs that are set up on either side of the tiny black box space, and, generally, get mind-fucked by whatever Deb Randall (the Artistic Director and jill of all trades at Venus) has in store for you on that particular day.

I say all of this because I think Venus is really important, both in the work it does and in the fact of its existence itself. It proves that adventurous theatre can survive and thrive in the most unlikely of places. But also, upon seeing Soft Revolution on Sunday, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter the most packed house I’ve ever seen at Venus. And, in addition to that, there were more people of color in the audience than I see in 95% of the plays I attend.

Artistic Director Deborah Randall. Photo courtesy of Venus Theatre Company.

John: I agree that Venus is a gem. For 16 years Deb Randall has been running a vibrant theater festival of women’s voices. Before the performance we saw, she announced that Soft Revolution was Venus’s “58th women-empowering script.” That’s absolutely extraordinary, given the extent to which feminist voices are marginalized.

As for Soft Revolution—a script I admired enormously—I think it speaks universally to the experience of outsiders trying to survive and thrive in a foreign culture up against deep-seated prejudice. And it does this by telling really profoundly the particular story of two super-smart, highly educated Muslim women trying to exist with worth and dignity in a non-Muslim culture. The play happens to be set in Australia, but it could easily be America.

The central conflict in the play is between a 23-year-old Australian-born woman, Shafana, and her 43-year-old Aunt Sarrinah, who was born in Afghanistan. Shafana is studying to be a marine biologist; Sarrinah was a highly placed construction engineer in her homeland but in Australia works packing hardware parts. Their argument, which is rich and dense and complex, turns on Shafana’s decision to wear a hijab and her Aunt’s urging her not to.

“I want to fit in. Not to be too unusual,” says Sarrinah.

“I want to put on the scarf because this is who I am,” says Shafana.

In a sense their argument goes to the heart of every stigmatized outsider’s struggle over how not to lose one’s identity in assimilating for safety. So the play’s got a deep, deep resonance.

I confess that during the first few scenes I wasn’t quite getting where the play was going. The playwright was letting us get to know these two characters and their relationship and family history, and the tension between them wasn’t yet apparent. But once it became clear what was at stake between them—all of it symbolized by a head scarf—I was riveted.

When you and I talked right after the show, we realized we had slightly different takes on the production. I mainly had my ear on the writing, which I found fascinating—tight, insightful, illuminating of character and issues, surprising at every turn. I was particularly impressed that the playwright built each of her character’s case with equal persuasiveness. I love articulate writing that pulls me into a debate that way.

From your point of view, with your eye mainly on the direction and performance, how would you describe what you saw?

Michael: I also found much of the writing to be richly compelling, especially when it was animated by emotional experiences particular to the two characters. I’m thinking especially of Aunt Sarrinah (played with great heart and depth of feeling by Meera Narasimhan) when she recounts her experience living in Afghanistan as the Taliban began to seize power. I think that so often Americans, to the extent that we think of other nations at all, see the world as this patchwork of states that are either “with us” or “against us.” We forget that great swaths of the population may be deeply opposed to a particular regime, no matter what the ideological bent. And yet, particularly for Muslims in a post-9/11 world, all too often certain nationalities or ethnic identities are viewed as a monolith.

From a performance standpoint, the first thing I’ll say is that I admire the fact that Randall cast two women who appear to actually be of Near Eastern descent. I believe that a lot of theatres would have tried to use actors of other ethnicities to fill the roles and claim “color blind casting,” but I think that Meera Narasimhan (Aunt Sarrinah) and Nayab Hussain (Shafana) were able to bring more authenticity to their roles by carrying with them their own lived experience.

It’s also notable that Soft Revolution is a cast of two. So these two actors must truly carry the whole weight of the show, a difficult task for any actor. For the most part, I think both Narasimhan and Hussain did a commendable job bringing Valentine’s text to life. I personally think both women could have gone even further in their expression. I think the fear sometimes as an actor is that expressiveness comes off as fake or melodramatic, and it definitely can, but I also think that you can fall into a trap where your performance becomes so tightly rehearsed that you lose a degree of free-flow that comes from just letting go of everything. Granted, that’s damn hard to do in a space where the audience can be a foot away from you. But I think both of them can and should try to go there.

L to R: Nayab Hussain (Shafana) and Meera Narasimhan (Aunt Sarrinah). Photo courtesy of Venus Theatre.

As for the production, Deb Randall is consistently one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite director in DC (other top contenders include Michael Dove and Yury Urnov, if you’re curious). The way she stages her plays is often closer to modern dance or kinetic sculpture than to what we customarily think of as “blocking.” Venus also often picks scripts that are abstract enough to accommodate this style of staging. In the case of Soft Revolution, which is definitely the most naturalistic script I’ve seen performed at Venus, there are fewer opportunities for wildly experimental staging. Still, it is always interesting to see what Randall and perennial collaborator Scenic Designer Amy Rhodes do with the tiny Venus black box space.

John: Certainly Soft Revolution was for Venus a relatively spare staging, nothing showy, which I thought entirely appropriate to this play. I appreciated that the production did not get in the way of the text—did not overstate what was already electrifying dialog. I also thought both actors handled the language with a literate command exactly appropriate to these characters. I completely believed they were as brainy and intellectually engaged as the playwright wrote them to be; moreover I believed that the depth of the connection between aunt and niece had a lot to do with their mutual admiration for each others smarts. You don’t often see relationships on stage between women whose bond is grounded in that recognition of each other’s mind. In a way, that makes the division that results from their disagreement—a deeply principled one, for each of them—all the more poignant.

I admit I was puzzled at first by the video projections (co-created by Deb Randall and Neil McFadden), which are shown as part of a lecture Shafana is giving about strange creatures in the deep sea. The footage is really well edited and evocatively synced to what Shafana is saying. And it evidently related to the creatures preserved in jars on shelves in her lab. But I wasn’t sure what it had to do with the play.

And then at the end the projections are shown again, as before in the context of a lecture. By this time I knew about the intense struggle between the two women over identity and assimilation in a foreign culture. And suddenly I realized that these deep sea creatures Shafana has been telling us about are—in their tenacious evolutionary adaptations to undersea environments that are literally hostile to life—metaphors for the lives of these two extraordinary women and more universally for all those trying to survive and thrive in cultures antipathetic to who they are.

So by the time I walked out, I got that what the play was saying was not that these two characters are like fish out of water. They are actually more like creatures immersed in lethal animus trying to figure out how not to be disappeared by it. In that sense the play, and the way the projections framed it, blew my mind.

Michael: That’s fascinating, and I never would have made that connection. I love the layers of meaning that result from live theatre that is produced with great intention, and I certainly would rank Soft Revolution as an example of this. In the wake of the election, I’ve seen a lot of theatre criticism that talks about how much more relevant this or that is now. But in the case of Soft Revolution, I really, truly do feel that it is more important than ever that such a insightful and humanizing work exists.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah plays through December 18, 2016 at Venus Theatre Company – 21 C Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 236-4078, or purchase them online.

LINKS:
Review: ‘Rock the Line’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

Review: ‘Garbage Kids’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

Review: ‘Fur’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘Raw’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

The Women’s Voices Theater Festival: ‘Witches Vanish’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

‘dry bones rising’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

‘God Don’ Like Ugly’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

‘Virus Attacks Heart’ at Venus Theatre Company by Michael Poandl.

‘We Are Samurai’ at Venus Theatre by Michael Poandl.

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John Stoltenberg and Michael Poandl
Among the hats John Stoltenberg wears are novelist and author, creative director and communications strategist, and avid theatergoer. Decades ago, in college, he began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile Stoltenberg’s own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then his life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction and what became a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Since graduating American University in 2013, Michael Poandl has pursued opportunities that combine his twin passions of politics and the arts. In the pursuit of advocating for the arts on the level of public policy, he ​currently serves as the Fundraising Associate for the Americans for the Arts Action Fund, the only organization dedicated exclusively to electing pro-arts candidates on the national level. Having studied Theatre and Art History in college, he remains an active theatre artist, and is proud to frequently contribute to DCMetroTheaterArts.com as a critic and interviewer.

1 COMMENT

  1. I enjoyed your post-performance discussion. What a great forum to express your fresh reaction and opinions.

    Meera Narsimhan has been acting in Indian language plays in Washington metro area for many years and therefore has a lot of friends in the local Indian theater community – particularly Natya Bharati, a theater group that has been consistently presenting plays for over thirty years to mainly the Indian diaspora. I was also in the audience last Sunday when it was SRO crowd for the 3:00 p m performance. Majority in the crowd were Meera’s friends who attended to support her and that is why you guys saw more people of color in the audience that afternoon.

    Natya Bharati once in while presents plays in English. I am directing their next play “The Final Chapter” which will have its premier performances on April 1 and 2. I invite you theater buffs to attend one of the shows. I would love to hear about my play from you guys.

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