|How do you tell someone who you are when there’s no word to describe what you are? Wendy Graf thoughtfully explores this cultural quandary in her newest play starring the supremely versatile Anna Khaja in a one-woman show that goes behind the hijab in a journey of the heart.
Hanna Jokhoe’s seemingly carefree early childhood growing up in the small Caribbean nation of Guyana with her two brothers is interrupted by tragedy. After losing her mother to a fire, Hanna finds comfort in her doting aunt, a wife of an imam, who takes pride in Hanna’s devotion of their Muslim faith. Tragedy continues to earmark Hanna’s young life as her family relocates to Queens, NY prior to 9/11. Suddenly, her faith makes her an outcast, a target of ridicule.
Through it all, Hanna clings to her teachings, wearing the traditional hijab Khaja lovingly wraps around her head from the scarves draped onstage. There is a deep, unsettling stirring from within Hanna though that challenges her role as a wife in an unhappily arranged marriage, a daughter, and her belief. As she discovers her sexual identity, Hanna reaches out to her family for acceptance, but finds herself an outcast again, shunned by the omission of her sexuality in their native language and religion.
Graf once again shows her command over creating strong female characters in cultural and personal crisis. Having enjoyed critical success with last year’s thrilling ensemble play, “Behind the Gates,” Graf’s skilled characterizations is buoyed by Anna Khaja’s seamless ability to transform in a myriad of roles (approximately ten) with specific body language and vocal inflections. In the intimate space, the effect is transfixing. Graf’s characters are so solidly drawn that in Khaja’s detailed performance, the one-woman risk triumphs as well as any multi-cast production.
Much attention is paid to the language itself, the power of words that flow trippingly from Khaja. Embodying each role, the kindnesses and the cruelty from her father, her auntie, her brothers and husband are told evenly through flashbacks, prompted by Hanna’s forgiveness. Graf is careful not to slant the story with melodrama or sentimentality. The events that shape Hanna’s young life inevitably speak for themselves and the reality, while difficult at times to hear is revealed with painstaking veracity.
Graf’s empathetic skill to present cultural and gender issues in a thoroughly entertaining and potent combination shines in its zenith here. Anita Khanzadian’s particular staging moves Khaja through the fascinating but difficult timeline of her childhood through adulthood with graceful simplicity and seemingly organic motivations. Projections by Matthew Richter add an additional element of place and the power of symbols with the moon and Hanna’s beloved photos.
Davis Campbell’s elegant set design provides all the necessary levels with only a couple of small benches and a Turkish rug. Panels of scarves fill the space, with a few sumptuous wraps delicately hung within Khaja’s easy reach.
Ultimately, Graf’s powerful play is about faith. Faith in one’s self, faith in forgiveness and keeping the faith when it refuses to keep you, and when all else fails, “No Word in Guyanese for Me” speaks volumes for those who have no voice.
“No Word in Guyanese for Me”
through June 12 EXTENDED THROUGH JUNE 25TH
Fri & Sat at 8 pm
Sundays at 5 pm
Sidewalk Studio Theatre
4150 West Riverside Drive
--M.R. Hunter (eyespylareview[at]gmail.com)
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