Rohina Malik’s Yasmina’s Necklace, now playing at the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, is a play that, while extremely funny, has a very dark core, as its title character brought a lot more baggage with her than merely what she carried when she came with her father as a refugee from the Iraq War. That coming to grips with the horrors of war has become one of the commonplace realities of our time is central to this play, and Malik pulls no punches as her witty, engaging script shifts into something poignant and powerful.
The script plays out from the beginning as a kind of situation comedy featuring two Arab families and the desire for an arranged marriage. Well, it’s not everyone’s desire. Half Puerto Rican/half Arab Sam (Michael Perez), who has changed his name from Abdul because he doesn’t wish to have to fight corporate racism, is still thoroughly depressed after the failure of his first marriage to a woman named Tracy. He’s on four different medications and in therapy; he has no room in his heart for a new relationship. So when his father Ali (Amro Salama) reports that the local Imam (Allen Gilmore) has found a young woman who’d make a good match, he’s doubly against it. In addition to his depression, as an American man, he hates the idea of arranged marriages. As mother Sara (a hilarious Laura Crotte) and father work on talking him into trying, Ali argues, “A love marriage didn’t work out; why not try our way?”
Sam’s father argues, “A love marriage didn’t work out; why not try our way?”
In Yasmina’s home, we discover that her father Musa (Rom Barkhordar) is being equally manipulative. (She complains that she never agreed to the meeting with Sam; he says “I woke you up and you said yes.”) Yasmina, though is not interested at all. As played by Susaan Jamshidi, she is a dark, brooding presence, a painter of multiple images of death and destruction brought about by war, a constant wearer of black. ”I survived (the war),” she tells her father and later Sam, “but I am not normal. Black represents my personality.”
Yasmina is a refugee with a purpose: she spent her time in Iraq burying bodies in the street (an occupation that brought her in direct contact with her mother’s body, its exposed skull now drilled into her memory); she worked with fellow refugees in Syria; she desires to set up a school for refugee girls in Chicago to teach them English. For her, it is as if she has never left Iraq: she literally carries a replica of it around her neck on a pendant, weighing her down at every step, and even has a jar of dirt from her homeland with her to keep her in constant touch with it. The war is too real and too alive, and she feels its weight breaking her.
It is as if she has never left Iraq; she literally carries a replica of it around her neck…and has a jar of dirt from her homeland…
Malik’s play cleverly bridges this gap using the device of the burgeoning relationship between her and Sam. Though at first they detest each other (she is too forcefully Muslim; he is too reluctant to embrace his heritage) and his mother freaks out about the notion of her son marrying out of his class (a refugee!), things do conspire to bring them together, of course. And part of the play’s joy is watching Jamshidi come out of the darkness Yasmina has built around herself. When she first begins to smile honest smiles, it is as if the entire stage has found new lighting. Even Sara is affected (reluctantly at first—”Beggars can’t be choosers”—but she comes around.)
The things Yasmina has seen and experienced in the war and the camps continues to haunt her, though, and it is clear that there are aspects she has refused to share. Her mind is torn with images of her childhood friend Amir and unfinished promises she made to him. But she is haunted by far more than that.
“I am a thousand geometric shapes with sharp edges,” she tells Sam. “Be careful. If you get too close, I will cut you.”
“I am a thousand geometric shapes with sharp edges. Be careful. If you get too close, I will cut you.” –Yasmina (Susaan Jamshidi)
But Sam has already been cut, ripped into a thousand pieces of his own, and the big question to him is whether Yasmina can help put him back together. Through Perez’s touching performance, we see a man who had once given up on love discover it again; through the painful portrayal by Jamshidi, we see almost the opposite. Can love itself, as well as their shared religion, put them both back together?
Ann Filmer’s direction here is nothing short of brilliant, nursing a play that see-saws between sitcom and heavy drama into something so cohesive that its characters can make us laugh and break our hearts without skipping a beat. She sucks us into this small, defined world, and we are immersed in a culture many of us, of course, have never experienced. Filmer is aided along the way by a gorgeous set designed by Joe Schmermoly. His set separates the wealthier home of Sam’s family from the dingy apartment of the refugees with an empty chasm of space, used only by Yasmina when she is in her own world, painting. High above the stage are the arched windows of the mosque: the religion that connects all of these people. Scenes at the mosque are located deep upstage. A shoutout too goes to Ahmad Abdulrazzaq, whose calligraphy adorns the huge mosque arch and whose dark paintings help define Yasmina’s character.
Yasmina’s Necklace does more than show us Muslims in normal family roles, though just doing that alone is worth a cheer. It is a stark reminder that war infects lives in unseen ways. It is a story about the power of love to overcome deep odds. It is a beautiful, hilarious, painful play that needs to be seen.
Yasmina’s Necklace is now playing at the Goodman Theatre, 170. N. Dearborn in Chicago, through Nov 19. Tickets are available from goodmantheatre.org; half price tickets are available. Find more information about this and other plays at theatreinchicago.com.