Carolina Performing Arts' season-long series "Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey," a collaboration with local and international artists to explore a diverse slice of the world within Islam, opened its final theatrical offering with Shahid Nadeem's colorful play Dara. The courageous Ajoka Theatre, a nonprofit company based in Pakistan, presents a multi-faceted view of Muslim life in many of its different forms. Founded in 1984 with a play performed in strict noncompliance with censorship laws at the time (Burqavaganza), Ajoka Theatre is known for the promotion of peace and tolerance, using theatre to "contribute to the struggle for a secular, humane, just, and egalitarian society in Pakistan" and worldwide.
The "Sufi Journey" project provides resources and guides on the purpose of this season's exploration, including short essays by UNC professor Carl Ernst, who explains the importance of a focus on diversity within the Islamic world. He reminds us that "in the more than fifty countries with Muslim majority populations, no two have the same legal system or the same definition of Islam," even though we as outsiders may have a certain, stereotyped view of Islam. "Sacred/Secular," and Dara in particular, means to explore those differences, especially in a country like ours, whose political M.O. is to alienate an entire culture of people by capitalizing on the fear of a small sect of a religion. Ernst spoke before the play began, reminding us that, "The past in not only in the past, but in the future as well," and it's up to us to be conscious of past prejudices such that we may seek to stave them.
Dara is a new play (premiered in Pakistan in 2010, and not adapted for English audiences until 2015 in London) that focuses on age-old issues. The story of the late 1600s Mughal Dynasty in India centers around Shah Jahan (Sohail Tariq), elderly and ailing, lamenting the current state of India after his rule has been snatched away by his third son, Aurangzeb (Usman Raj). He bemoans his India's fate while using the last bit of his failing sight to gaze at his passion project, the Taj Mahal, meant to memorialize his late wife, but also capturing an era of the country's history that is forever in the past – or will be after the events of the play, it seems. His eldest son, Dara (Furqan Majeed), has been captured in battle by Aurangzeb's armies and sentenced to a Sharia trial, bound to the stricter laws of Shia Islam, which include the death penalty for leaving Islam for another religion. As Dara is a philosopher, poet, and peace-seeker, he is seen communing and praying with leaders of Judaism, Christianity, Islam (or Sufism, specifically), Hinduism, and Buddhism, in the spirit of inclusivity to reconcile his understanding of each sect of what was to become his kingdom. Sarmad (Nirvaan Nadeem), the naked prophet – or zealot, depending on one's perspective – attempts to bridge these characters in his eccentric way, prompting prayerful dancing from Dara's supporters, and uncertainty from Aurangzeb and his cronies, with Nadeem's deft blend of stony gazes, resonating words, and humble yet carefree movements.
Meanwhile, Dara's sisters, princesses Jahan Ara (Uzma Kharal) and Roshan Ara (Nayab Faiza), have chosen sides of the conflict: Jahan Ara has chosen to care for their dying father Shah Jahan, and Roshan Ara is staying in close council with Aurangzeb. Kharal and Faiza were without question the most compelling actors of the play; they provided emotional and personal insight into the split between the brothers, which more or less symbolizes the current rift between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. While their dialogue was heated and passionate, many of the other characters came off flat in their long monologues.
Part of the flatness – and the jaded audience members deciding to leave the show periodically – was owed to the lagging supertitles that served as the audience's lifeline into the action. It was amusing, then infuriating, to watch certain phrases hang up above the stage while Dara or Aurangzeb was delivering his lines, then continue for several minutes without a new translation. When the next character spoke, the supertitles would flip through several lines in quick succession to catch up, losing for us much of the nuance of inflection and delivery the actors probably had.
The style of the play was set up like a storybook: a tableau of still actors who alternately monologued, then a song or dance framed by translations of poetry, then more monologuing, then more music. This style of performance, based in South Asian storytelling traditions, is a departure in structure and aesthetic from what Western theatergoers may be most familiar seeing. As such, the action seemed to unfold more slowly. This made it more challenging to maintain an interest in the story, particularly with the compounding issue of the lagging translations, and in the first act, it got boring. The symbolism of the Taj Mahal seemed somehow contextless, and many of the jokes didn't succeed because their delivery was hindered by the supertitles.
The music, costuming, and light design were glorious, bringing a glow to the illustrated feel of the play that was at times reverent, joyful, angry, mystical, or bleak. The use of swaths of fabric by the dancing dervishes especially provided motion and contemplation, and quiet moments to absorb the loaded monologues and significance of the play's conflict. If these elements could have been more fully integrated, rather than thrown in between scenes, Dara's message may have been punctuated in a more compelling manner.
Other events in Carolina Performing Arts' project have included the music of Hossein Alizadeh, Ping Chong's oral history performance work Beyond Sacred, Sussan Deyhim's The House is Black, a staged reading of Ayad Akhtar's The Who and the What, and "Shattered Glass," a poetry reading by Mohammad Moussa. The season will continue with four more events through April.
Thankfully, those of us in the Triangle live in an area in which prevailing thoughts seem more inclined to be inclusive of other cultures, intellectually open to exploring new beliefs, and enthusiastic in our discourse of the current social climate. We may consider fellow critic Jeffrey Rossman's point in his review of Chong's work, however, in saying the minds of Triangle audiences are likely not being changed because, fortunately, the Triangle is a tolerant place. Does that lessen the scope and impact of this project? Does "A Sufi Journey" foster the change that Ajoka Theatre seeks to spread? Or is thinking we have achieved tolerance its own danger, making this project as significant to our progressive collection of college towns as anywhere? Carolina Performing Arts' ability to foster new works like Dara is important, and the Triangle and Chapel Hill cultures are probably the best places in the state to allow newer works to start taking shape, getting their foothold in the repertoire before using such brilliant companies as Ajoka Theatre to spread their beautiful message.