THEATER In the downstairs den of her Noe Valley home, director Vidhu Singh and her cast are rehearsing some of the opening scenes in a madcap and punchy satirical revue making its US premiere at the Brava Theater this week. In the center of the room, to the driving beat of some irresistible Eastern pop, an MC (played by veteran improv actor-teacher Mick Laugs) introduces the diverse ensemble in the manner of a runway fashion show, as each character parades to the front of the stage to strike a pose in her or his burqa — because, female or male, just about everyone wears a burqa in this play.
Especially in this domestic setting, the whole project seems a good-natured and relaxed affair. At the same time, it's impossible to ignore the charge that comes with the satirical appropriation of this politically fraught piece of clothing, or miss the serious intention behind every comical line and gesture. For all its campy humor, Burqavaganza is a defiant piece of political theater — and, it turns out, a critique of much more than an embattled piece of female attire.
Written by award-winning Pakistani playwright, journalist, and human rights activist Shahid Nadeem, Burqavaganza sends up authoritarianism and extremism at large, the burqa becoming a byword for various public masks and ideological certainties thrown around by both sides in the tangled "war on terror." The word itself is woven obsessively into the dialogue like a ubiquitous fabric, its constant iteration — including in names and titles — making for a comical punctuation that sounds more and more absurd as time goes on. By the end, "burqa" becomes a nonsense word, burbling on the surface of an irrational state of affairs churned by deeper interests and forces that otherwise go unnamed.
First produced in Lahore by the Ajoka Theatre Company — co-founded by Nadeem and wife Madeeha Gauhar (the play's original director) — Burqavaganza was quickly banned by the Pakistani government after complaints from women members of a fundamentalist political party. That has not stopped it being mounted in various provinces of the country, however. As for its US debut, director Singh thinks it has something to offer local audiences beyond just entertainment.
"It seems to me that people want to talk about issues, but they don't have a way of addressing the debate about the burqa; and the play does that using humor and satire. That makes it very accessible. It humanizes the characters while highlighting the debate," Singh says. "I think the divide between the West and Islam is so sharp. The play tries to address both sides of the divide. On the one hand, it offends conservative Muslims, who think basically you're making fun of the burqa. On the other hand, it's also a critique of the West and the US's attitude toward Islam, and parodies the war on terror. So it sort of offends people on both sides — and it's funny, so it works."