Review: Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah at Venus Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Clutch your dreams in your screwed up fists and carry them out into reality. A mantra statement that Artistic Director and Founder of Venus Theatre Deborah Randall has abided by long before those words made their way into print in Alana Valentine’s script, Soft Revolution: Shafana and Aunt Sarrinah. Appearing as the perfect conclusion to season 16 and arriving as Script#58 at Venus Theatre, this evocative new work is receiving its DC-area premiere under the Direction of Deborah Randall and the timing could not be more poignant and relevant to the cultural and political upheaval in which the city and the nation, and even further still— the world— currently finds itself. Gripping in its emotional weight, which is trickled in little by little until the powerful conclusions, the play addresses not only the cultural significance of outwardly expressing one’s faith and beliefs and the struggles therein but also the generational gap that occurs among familial individuals when addressing such issues. Valentine’s work focuses strongly on the inequality of immigrants and religious disparity in addition to cultural and generational differences for how Muslims fit into the Australian culture, doing so in such a way that makes the work speak universally to those of us existing outside of the locale in which the play is set.

Nayab Hussain (left) as Shafana and Meera Narasimhan (right) as Aunt Sarrinah in Soft RevolutionVenus Theatre
Nayab Hussain (left) as Shafana and Meera Narasimhan (right) as Aunt Sarrinah in Soft Revolution

Scenic Designer Amy Rhodes, working with Director Deborah Randall, constructs a simple yet effective set that covers the multitude of spaces in Valentine’s play. Dividing the intimate space of Venus Theatre into two segments, where both main play spaces exist flush against the walls, Rhodes and Randall create clear visual divisions between the world in which Shafana lives and that in which her Aunt Sarrinah lives. The bright Afghani pattern print on the wall of Aunt’s kitchen is a striking representation of embraces her culture quietly in the privacy of her own home. The same pattern, though without its vibrant colors, is repeated though far more sparsely on Shafana’s side of the stage, readily displaying the gap between generations and cultural acceptance in their lives.

Rhodes doubles as the show’s Lighting Designer and is very smart to use pink lighting to indicate temporal shifts in the script. Whenever a scene in memory occurs— in many of which Randall chooses to block the actors on diagonal opposites of one another— Rhodes floods the stage in a magenta hue of lights, signaling not only the flashback but the emotions that charge the memory. This particular shade of pink represents not only the characters’ struggles with their identity of their beautiful faith and culture but also with their struggle as women in the working man’s field.

Sound Designer Neil McFadden leaves the show largely to its own textual devices but not without perfectly synchronized instances of sound that draw the audience into the cultural element of the play. Working with Director Deborah Randall to create an immersive pre-show experience, the pair blends clips of David Attenborough’s Australian documentary voice overs into Nigella’s cooking videos, with a hint of Bollywood fantasy dancing videos thrown in for good measure. This menagerie of cultural inclusion primes the audience for the multitude of experiences they are about to undertake before the play gets underway.

Though there are moments when Alana Valentine’s writing feels contrived, these are few and far between and never relating to subject matter or the relevance in which the play’s overall context speaks to the audience. There are minor instances where a character’s dialogue— often Shafana’s— comes out and plainly states emotions rather than exposing it in a fashion that seems more natural. These little hiccups aside, Valentine has penned a striking piece of theatre that speaks on multiple levels to a great many issues in the modern world— including but not limited to the profundity of religious faith and belief and how choosing to outwardly express that faith and belief can dehumanize an individual making them a walking representation of religion rather than a human being who practices it. The way Valentine creates these two characters, who are worlds apart in multiple senses of the phrase, is exciting and heartfelt.

Meera Narasimhan as Aunt Sarrinah in Soft RevolutionAmanda N. Gunther
Meera Narasimhan as Aunt Sarrinah in Soft Revolution

The play itself takes a bit longer than might be expected to build that dramatic tension, though the fault seems to fall neither on Valentine’s writing nor on Randall’s direction. It’s almost imperceptible, the sluggish beginning, which to its credit is poetic in itself by making the larger comparison to the world we do not know waiting for us in darkened corners of the ocean. Once the build of tension is underway, however, it stacks exponentially until the play’s rather shocking and dramatic conclusion. Randall, who places her visionary expertise into play, honing in on the emotional turmoil carried between these two characters, draws focus to the bigger picture. Valentine’s play is not just a play about whether or not to wear a hijab as a show of faith, but about the differences in world views, generational views, gender views, and ultimately human views as to how such a decision can impact one’s life.

At first the two performances feel a bit uneven, with Meera Narasimhan, as Aunt Sarrinah, appearing to be the more engaged and connected of the two actors on stage. This, however, is an intentional push to showcase the greater change witnessed in Nayab Hussain’s character by the show’s end. Keeping Hussain purposefully detached and distance, almost playing her emotions on the surface rather than a much deeper level allows the audience to see not only the “know-it-all” arrogance of the younger generation that Valentine describes in the text, but also the way in which the younger generation addresses serious issues when it comes to their world views. Incidentally, by having Hussain keep the character of Shafana somewhat aloof and almost passionately indifferent, it allows for the character arc’s completion to land with such gravity that you cannot help but empathize with her decision by the conclusion.

Hussain is the epitome of the younger generation, seeing the positive and pushing for change to be accepted simply because they accept it. There is a heavy defiance with which she carries the character’s beliefs and this is most often showcased in the way she speaks. Adapting no accent to the character furthers the notable differences between her character and Narasimhan’s character of Aunt Sarrinah. The interplay between the pair is striking, particularly in moments of heavy tension when the real crux of the issue comes to the forefront.

Meera Narasimhan (left) as Aunt Sarrinah and Nayab Hussain (right) as Shafana in Soft RevolutionAmanda N. Gunther
Meera Narasimhan (left) as Aunt Sarrinah and Nayab Hussain (right) as Shafana in Soft Revolution

Narasimhan is emotionally disarming in the production and keeps you clinging to her every word during her harrowing and heartfelt confession scene, delving deep into repressed memories of her experiences in escaping Afghanistan. In addition to handling these moments with emotional prestige and sensibility, Narasimhan creates a believable shift in the delivery of her broken English, showing the growth her character makes from the time she first arrived in Australia to the present day where the majority of the show takes place. As if her acting skills weren’t cause enough to come see the show (because acting over cooking, in that order) Narasimhan is cooking authentic Afghani cuisine live on stage at each performance, which is shared with the audience after the show has concluded. This furthers the immersive cultural experience and draws the audience further into the world that Valentine has constructed and Randall with her sensational cast and creative team has executed.

A perfect coda to the Sweet16 season at Venus, and strikingly relevant to so many things happening around the world at present, Soft Revolution is a must-see show for the Washington DC area this season.

Running Time: 80 minutes with no intermission

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

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