Rohina Malik was attending a friend’s wedding some 15 years ago when the realities of post-9/11 America rocked her world. A Chicago-based theater artist and practicing Muslim, she was heading inside the banquet hall when a man, a guest from a different wedding next door, saw her hijab and began berating her with hateful language, telling Malik to “take that [expletive] off your head” and shouting that “you A-rabs are all terrorists.” She defended herself, and the situation quickly escalated. The police came and arrested the man for attempted assault.
“The thing that really scared me was it never occurred to him that I was pushing a stroller and had two small children,” says Malik, a Pakistani immigrant who was born in London, speaking by phone from her home in the Chicago area. “It was a moment where I really felt so dehumanized. I always knew I had to write about it, but it was so painful that it took me a long time to finally do it.”
That personal experience was the inspiration for one of the powerful vignettes in Malik’s solo performance piece “Unveiled,” in which five different Muslim women tell stories about facing incidents of bigotry and hate, and of their choice to wear the hijab, the traditional head covering worn by Muslim women. They also serve and discuss different kinds of tea popular in the regions from which they come.
The play, which will star Malik playing all five parts (in addition to some supporting characters), will be co-presented by New Repertory Theatre, Jan. 10-28, at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown and by the Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham, Feb. 7-16. There will be a discussion with tea and cookies following each performance.
The female characters in “Unveiled” include a Pakistani immigrant clothing designer, a Moroccan-American lawyer born and raised in Chicago, an African-American woman from Dallas who has converted to Islam (she prefers the term “revert”), a South Asian hip-hop artist from West London, and a Palestinian immigrant restaurant owner from Chicago.
“In this moment we’re living in, we so rarely hear from everyday Muslims,” Malik says. “We see all the negative stereotypes of Muslims in the media. When you turn on any TV show or film, Muslims are never normal characters. They’re almost always portrayed as the villain, the terrorist, the bad guy who wants to blow something up.”
Theater, Malik has discovered, can serve as an antidote to intolerance and bigotry and foster understanding and healing. She points to a moment from the show’s original run at the 16th Street Theater in suburban Chicago, in which a young man from rural Ohio came to “Unveiled” with a group of college students.
“After the show ended, he was crying and he said, ‘I want to speak to Rohina.’ He was sobbing and he was like, ‘I hated Muslims. I thought you wore the veil to celebrate 9/11. I was ignorant. And I’m so sorry.’ That was a very powerful moment for me,” recalls Malik, who has brought the show to theaters around the country, including to Merrimack College last spring.
New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa says the power of “Unveiled” comes from the ways that the different women “dare to speak in ways that seek conciliation and identification. It is the essential power of the theater that as we witness a character’s struggle, we become one with them. Their struggle becomes our struggle. In the best of worlds, what was remote becomes immediate, what once seemed like ‘other’ can now be seen as ‘self.’ Rohina’s piece does just that.”
Malik, 41, caught the theater bug in high school. In her junior year, she took a class where she had to write and direct a 10-minute play. She remembers her teacher jumping out of his seat and clapping at the end and seeing the elation on his face.
Yet as an undergrad at DePaul University, Malik chose instead to major in comparative religion. “I had all these negative thoughts in my mind from my peers. I just felt like there wasn’t a place for someone like me in the American theater,” she says. “I should have majored in theater, but I didn’t believe in myself enough, and I just didn’t get that support from everyone around me.”
After college, Malik got married and began raising a family. She worked as a teacher at Montessori schools. But, she says, “I felt like I had a hole in my heart. I always had this nagging, horrible feeling that life was passing me by and I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do.”
Malik said she began to ask herself why she was unhappy when she had so much. “I have four beautiful children, a beautiful husband, a home, and no reason to be unhappy. But something wasn’t right. So I had this moment where I asked myself: When in your life were you truly happy and content? What kept coming in my mind was high school when I was writing plays and acting and doing solo performance.”
After that time of reflection, she told her husband that he was going to have to watch the kids one night a week after work, because she was planning to take a theater class about writing a solo show.
“The rest is history,” says Malik, whose youngest child was in diapers at the time. “I’m glad I saw that through. It’s really important to listen and act on that nagging feeling.”
“Unveiled” is the first installment in New Rep’s “Statements of Survival Series,” part of a season dedicated to the theme of resilience. In the next two months, New Rep will present a revival of Athol Fugard’s “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act” (Jan. 27-March 3), about an interracial love affair in apartheid-era South Africa; a 25th anniversary revival of Steven Dietz’s “Lonely Planet” (Feb. 3-March 4), set during the height of the AIDS epidemic; and the world premiere of “Ripe Frenzy” (Feb. 24-March 11), in which a community grapples with the aftershocks of a devastating tragedy.
Malik feels that a piece like “Unveiled” can be particularly resonant at a time of rising hate crimes across the country. “As an artist, I feel like we’ve got to take action,” she says. “That’s why I’m trying to instill in my four kids that you can sit on the couch and complain, or you can get up and do something. And giving a lecture or speech can speak to people on an intellectual level, but it can’t really impact their hearts the way storytelling can.”
Co-presented by New Repertory Theatre and Greater Boston Stage Company. At the Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, Jan. 10-28. Tickets $15-$40, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org . At Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, Feb. 7-16. Tickets $15-$25, 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org.