“There’s no sex in Pakistani homes,” Nadia Manzoor’s narrator says. And it would certainly seem that way in a household where watching Dallas in something you do in a locked room and a list of rules hangs in your college dorm room, which includes staying three feet away from a member of the opposite sex.
All this would be a little easier for an adolescent Nadia to swallow if she weren’t surrounded by modern Western values in North London, where her parents’ no-touching, no-dating policy is not quite the norm among her white friends. Burq Off, Nadia Manzoor‘s one-woman show, follows Nadia’s search for a feminine identity from childhood to her early 20’s while navigating the cultural conflicts of her British-Pakistani home.
Burq Off is funny and incredibly endearing. Each one of Manzoor’s 21 characters, largely her family and friends, feel like tangible, complex individuals. From her kind and affable mother to the violent unrest of radical Muslim college boys, Manzoor captures their physicality, motivations, and history with intuitive clarity. Every inch of Burq Off‘s set, designed by Mitchell Ost, is covered in colorful pieces of Middle Eastern women’s cloth. Manzoor creatively uses these cloths and some simple furniture as her props. Burq Off can also be exhilarating. Manzoor splits intervals of her show with short dancing pieces. She re-creates one dance from a Bollywood movie her family has gone to see, but puts her own edgy spin on it so that it both honors her cultural heritage but imbues it with wit, attitude, and sexiness. It’s a pretty great micro-representation of the show’s approach to Nadia’s cultural influences.
Burq Off covers such a wide range of Ms. Manzoor’s experiences and one scene can contain just as diverse an array of emotions. But what stands out most in the show is how Nadia finds the strength time and time again (and in radically opposite ways) to feel confident as a Muslim, as a woman, and as a daughter. For example, in her early teens, it’s her modesty that makes Nadia feel empowered. Later on, it’s showing off her bare skin. And when her mother is on her death bed, it’s maternal acceptance that allows Nadia to move forward as a mature woman and love herself for who she is. Burq Off refuses to portray Nadia as a victim; instead Nadia’s journey has many layers to it– it’s sexy, it’s fun, it’s ambitious, it’s honest– and we’re all left feeling a bit more empowered ourselves through her.
Burq Off plays at Walkerspace (46 Walker St.) through March 30. Tickets here.