Loading...
 

Theater Review - Like a prayer

Prayer looks at Islam in American South

Playwright Suehyla El-Attar knows just what's on our minds at the outset of The Perfect Prayer at Horizon Theatre.

??
The world premiere of El-Attar's loosely autobiographical work concerns the experience of growing up Muslim in a Mississippi college town. In an early scene, a professor (Tom Thon) introduces his class on contemporary Moslem societies and asks his students to name the things that come to mind when someone says the word "Muslim." The first reply, inevitably, is "Terrorist!"

??
Even though the play never talks directly about Sept. 11, the popular image of Islamist fanaticism remains one of its primary concerns. In the lecture scene, the professor maintains that Islam is a peaceful religion and that the acts of political violence "are not within Islam." In The Perfect Prayer, El-Attar explores a young Egyptian-American's relationship to her Muslim parents, to her Christian-American boyfriend, and primarily to Islam itself. The play may not be perfect, but it represents one writer's amusing and eloquent bid to reclaim the religion from its fringe elements.

??
Hadia (Megan Hayes), a 21-year-old college student, has mixed feelings about taking the Moslem societies class. She signs up for it to boost her poor grade point average, expecting it to be a cakewalk. The twist is that the professor happens to be her father, so the classroom becomes an extension of her home life. Hadia's father, Achmed, bows to Mecca five times a day like clockwork. Her mother, Sarah (Marianne Fraulo), doesn't pray but remains similarly devout, particularly when she's training Hadia to be "a good Muslim girl."

??
The early scenes of The Perfect Prayer capture the funny, seemingly universal incongruities of immigrant parents raising children who grow up to be assimilated Americans. As Sarah watches "The Young and the Restless" and Achmed advocates the importance of religion, Hadia slumps on the sofa and rolls her eyes like any U.S. teenager. Hayes often excels at playing funny airheads or mean girls, and her all-American persona suits Hadia's often confusing status as "a non-black African-American," as she puts it.

??
In class, a gregarious grad student named Adam (Tyler Owens) likes to debate with Achmed but seems to mistake arguing for flirting when he talks to Hadia. Despite his tendency to make bothersome burkha jokes, Adam begins to infiltrate Hadia's defenses, and their courtship moves from passing notes to secretly dating. Owens strikes a winning balance with Adam, presenting him as a friendly, idealistic, young good ol' boy, and not an overbearing jerk.

??
As their relationship heats up, Hadia makes out with Adam yet finds herself haunted by thoughts of her mother, who tends to make remarks like, "Wherever a boy touches you, that part of your body will burn in hell forever." After a disastrous, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner meeting with her parents at the end of Act One, Hadia has a rift with her family, and eating pepperoni pizza proves her most minor act of rebellion. Gradually, though, she comes to accept her religion and Egyptian heritage on her own terms, and not as things foisted upon her by her parents.

??
In The Perfect Prayer, some questions surround Hadia's character. She wants to quit college but has no greater ambitions, social life or even any friends that the play mentions. So why are her grades so bad? Do her problems amount to nothing more than youthful rebellion against her folks? Facets of her personality seem unexplored.

??
Thon provides some of the play's funniest moments: Whenever he complains about his family life, he overdramatically longs for death. He also conveys religious passion without seeming irrational or anti-intellectual. Though the play can resemble the syllabus of a comparative religion class, its least "dramatic" moments often turn out to be the most intriguing, such as the idea that Islam, Judaism and Christianity each stand for tolerance, justice and forgiveness, respectively. During one provocative conversation, Achmed makes the case that compared to all of the Islamic countries in the Middle East, the most faithfully Muslim nation is America.

??
Jonathon Williamson's set features five columns that evoke the five pillars of Islam (which the play discusses in some detail) while nodding to the American melting pot: The pillars on one side resemble the Greek columns of antebellum mansions, while the others more closely evoke Middle Eastern architecture. Despite its setting in the Bible Belt, The Perfect Prayer mentions no episodes of bigotry and confines its culture-clash aspects to Hadia's internal dilemma. After the Oklahoma City bombing, she describes worrying that the plotters were one of "my people." Because she's an American, Timothy McVeigh and the bombers do turn out to be "her people" after all.

??
Despite the domestic confrontations, The Perfect Prayer's second act emphasizes serene moments, such as Hadia teaching Adam the proper way to pray, and Achmed's vivid description of his pilgrimage to Mecca. In these scenes, director Lisa Adler conveys a little of Islam's peaceable qualities that never makes headlines. "Grace" may be primarily a Christian term, but The Perfect Prayer's most memorable moments communicate a comparable kind of spiritual transcendence. Asalaam Alaikum, y'all.