Yasmina’s Necklace

By Rohina Malik

Directed by Ann Filmer

Produced by 16th Street Theater, Berwyn

Life Goes On During War

Many playwrights aspire to write a drama that is of vital interest to a theatre-going community’s concerns, contains an appropriate balance of comedy and pathos, depicts compelling, sympathetic characters, and tells a logical story driven by those characters’ desires, which are both unique to themselves and identifiable to the larger community. Those playwrights would do well do learn from Rohina Malik. Yasmina’s Necklace, now in its world premiere at the 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, is a beautifully-crafted love story in which the Middle-Eastern refugee crises and immigrant assimilation anxiety are woven seamlessly into a character drama. Little here is heavy-handed or propagandistic; instead, we see how ordinary people live with enormous challenges. The performance I attended was greeted with great enthusiasm by immigrant and Muslim attendees, but the story is accessible to everyone, and I hope it will inspire other artists.

Laura Crotte (Sara), Michael Perez (Sam), Amro Salama (Ali), and Miguel Nunez (Imam Waseem). Photos by Anthony Aicardi.

Abdul Samee (Michael Perez) has recently changed his name to “Sam” to limit the amount of discrimination he faces in the corporate world. His parents, Ali (Amro Salama) and Sara (Laura Crotte), are not pleased. Ali is a proud Iraqi immigrant, and Sara is a Puerto Rican convert who is very conscious of how she and her family are perceived at the mosque. Sam already embarrassed the family by marrying and then divorcing a non-Muslim woman who cheated on him, and his decision to conceal his heritage came just as his parents were hoping set him up in a better match. Sam regards arranged marriages as yet another reason to assimilate, but through a combination of brow-beating and guilt, his parents eventually persuade him to at least meet the woman.

Salar Ardebili (Amir), Susaan Jamshidi (Yasmina), and Michael Perez (Sam)

Yasmina (Susaan Jamshidi) is an Iraqi refugee who arrived with her father, Musa (Mark Ulrich), after a journey that led through Syria and Turkey. Ali and Sara were unaware of this, and it instantly becomes a huge problem. Refugees have very low social status; Ali and Sara correctly intuit that Musa’s credentials aren’t valid in America, he’s unemployed, and Yasmina uses her painting as a way of coping with severe trauma. Yasmina wasn’t pleased with the match either, but once they start talking, she and Sam find that they don’t hate each other. Well, not quite; Yasmina wears a necklace with a pendant shaped like Iraq, and is disgusted by Sam’s attempt to hide his Iraqi heritage. But he’s impressed by her desire to start a program to aid other refugees, and has legal and organizational knowledge that could be useful to her. Of course, things can’t be that easy.

Salama (Ali), Perez (Sam), and Crotte (Sara)

This premise could have easily turned into a melodrama or paint-by-numbers romantic comedy, but thanks to the skill and nuance of all the artists involved, it doesn’t. Yasmina has a justifiably morbid disposition after what she’s been through, but Jamshidi plays her with a sharp wit and prickly, nearly indefatigable steadfastness. Michael Perez’s Sam overly focuses on the negative parts of his parents’ culture, but he is an adult, not a man-child in need of a climactic lecture, as often happens in these kinds of stories. He’s handling his problems quite well; it’s Yasmina’s trauma from being abused by Iraqi insurgents and the Syrian military, and guilt over leaving her friend Amir (Salar Ardebili) in Iraq, that’s creating most of the trouble. Malik doesn’t offer an easy answer to that, but she has us firmly rooting for the couple to succeed. The parents start the play in a state of high dudgeon that could seem cartoonish if you’ve never actually known people like this and suggests that the play is a sit-com, but again, that’s quickly avoided. Once we get a chance to know Musa, Sara, and Ali, they’re quite likable, as is the busy-body Imam Waseem (Miguel Nunez).

Jamshidi (Yasmina) and Perez (Sam)

At one point, a character tells a fable about the importance of acknowledging the sweetness in life despite its bitterness. Malik has carefully balanced the effects of the horrors of war on her characters with moments of hope and levity. Director Ann Filmer, the artistic director of the 16th Street Theatre and one of Malik’s most faithful collaborators, further fortifies this blend with small moments, such as characters awkwardly sipping tea to avoid talking to each other, which are quite funny. It turns out that a romantic comedy can actually be an effective story-telling structure if the story is treated intelligently and contains genuine romance and comedy. The 16th Street Theatre also is a very good fit as a venue with Yasmina’s Necklace. Joanna Iwanicka’s set looks like it could be the interior of any of the surrounding houses, or like how refugees might really fix up the Berwyn Cultural Center’s basement if they were to settle there. The forty-nine seat theatre’s intimacy is also a major factor in forging the audience’s connection with the characters, but the downside is that not enough people will be able to see the play. However, it has already been extended once due to high demand. Hurry to get your tickets.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed February 4, 2016

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see Yasmina’s Necklace’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Illinois. Tickets are $20, with discounts for Berwyn residents and groups; to order, call 708-795-6704 or visit 16thstreettheater.org. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm and Saturdays at 5:00 and 8:30 pm through March 5. Running time is two hours, with one intermission.