Writer and performer Nadia P. Manzoor, who was born in Chicago, moved to Singapore and Dubai as a toddler, then was raised primarily in a Pakistani immigrant community in North London, lifts the veil off her struggle to break free of the cultural norms that envelop her in her one-woman show, Burq Off!, running through January 18 at Teatro Circulo. Mitchell Ost’s set features a table and three chairs surrounded by a crescent-shaped wall draped with heavy, brightly colored, elaborately designed fabrics, the only opening a small, sparkling window in the center back, offering Nadia the hint of a bigger world outside. Over the course of eighty minutes, Manzoor symbolically removes the layers of cloth that metaphorically obstruct Islamic women from living lives of freedom, using stories from her childhood as a microcosm for women around the world. Manzoor plays twenty-one people in the production, changing accents and twisting and folding a red scarf to create costumes to depict such characters as her mother, Ammi, and her father, Abbu, who both adhere to the old Pakistani ways; her annoying twin brother, Khurram; family friend Aunty Ji; Katy, her sexually liberated English schoolmate; her teacher Molvisaab; her first cousin and first crush, Mustafa; and her bartender boyfriend, Brendan. The modern-day Nadia, who serves as narrator, introduces the play with a memory of herself at five years old, when she wanted to be an astronaut. “Lying in bed, time would disappear as I gazed into the night sky. Mesmerized by the infinite, I would just begin to float, like smoke, far away from my bedroom, from my family, from my house in Hertfordshire, England, and towards I didn’t know what.” But her parents immediately shoot down her dreams. “How can you be an astronaut,” her father says. “Women can’t be astronauts. Who will cook? Who will clean? Who will feed your husband if you are floating about in space?” Her mother adds, “One day you will make a man very very happy.”
The setting shifts from her family’s dining room to her school dorm to her mother’s hospital bed as Nadia attempts to overcome the ties that bind her, experiencing love and loss as she considers options that go against the dictates of the society in which she was born and raised, including a set of strict, old-fashioned rules her father gives her as a college present. She talks about the influence of Bollywood movies, how her mother referred to her vagina as “shame shame,” and the hypocrisy of her culture. Manzoor has an easy way about her, immediately drawing the audience onto her side. Although some of the vignettes are fairly familiar for the coming-of-age genre, the bits about Mustafa and Brendan are particularly effective and unique. Directed and developed by Tara Elliott, Burq Off! recalls Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, about a young girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and Anna Khaja’s one-woman show, Shadeed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto, in which Khaja portrays eight characters with differing views of the prime minister on the day she was killed. Manzoor, who is also preparing the online series Shugs & Fats, never gets quite so overtly political, but her personal liberation is political in and of itself, as it is for so many women in so many cultures around the world.