Shahid Nadeem, a three-time prisoner of conscience in Pakistan for his prominent work as an activist and dramatist, when asked about performing his play Burqavaganza in his home country, can give you a province-by-province, and at times a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, breakdown of obstacles to his artistic expression. Although the 2008 play, a political satire in which both male and female characters wear burqas, was banned by the Pakistan National Arts Council in 2010, areas of the country controlled by liberal parties allow the play to be performed — if, say, Nadeem's Ajoka Theatre gives it a different title. All bets will be off, though, on May 11, when the country has its next parliamentary elections, the run-up to which has already been bloody. But five days later, Burqavaganza will see good news in the form of its first full U.S. production, at Brava Theater under the direction of Vidhu Singh, an artist-in-residence at the company. We spoke to Singh in-person and to Nadeem by phone about the controversial play.
SF Weekly: You two met in 2004 through the Bay Area activist group Friends of South Asia. Vidhu, what made you want to direct Burqavaganza?
Singh: Because it's new and provocative. It has a duality because under the humor there's this layer of horror. It's hysterical, and it's creepy.
The play's opening stage directions say, "The Western media, politicians, and lawmakers appear to be terrorized by the sight of a burqa-wearing woman." Why does the West feel that way?
Singh: I'm not a Muslim, but I'm very connected to the Muslim community. I know people who cover themselves, and I don't want to offend people. But [the burqa] frightens me sometimes. It creates a separation.
Nadeem: Both the West and Islamic extremists are afraid. They get involved in trivial things that aren't as significant or meaningful as issues like poverty and education. [The burqa] is made into a huge issue. The fundamental issues are very different.
But surely the cloistering and oppression of women is a fundamental issue.
Nadeem: A woman wearing a burqa is not necessarily an extremist, and a woman not wearing a burqa is not necessarily a liberal. We have fixed ideas about how a burqa-wearing woman should be labeled. And we should be careful because we could be embarrassed to find we have more in common with a woman wearing a burqa than with someone not.
Singh: [The play] gives audiences access to the debate about the burqa. [In the States], you don't really have access. You just read stuff.
How does the burqa work as a metaphor in the play?
Singh: The play is not making fun of people who choose to cover themselves. It's using the burqa as a theatrical device, a metaphor for a society that thrives on hypocrisy, that covers up the truth and hides immorality and ugliness. While critiquing rising fundamentalism, it also makes fun of Islamophobia and the war on terror.
Much of the play's comedy comes from Bollywood tropes. Are you concerned about the humor translating to a Western audience?
Nadeem: If you look at the burqa in a symbolic sense, everywhere people have burqas. Every culture has its own way of hiding true intentions. There are communist burqas; there are free market burqas.
Singh: The message of the play reaches a wider audience than just the Pakistani community. I have a very San Francisco kind of cast. It's half South Asian; the other half has Israeli, German, and Iraqi performers. It's a very entertaining play; in the first scene, people are jogging or on their mobiles but covered in burqas.
One of the funniest parts of the play is a television show in which three mullahs answer telephone queries about the minutiae of Islamic law. One caller asks how big the holes in the screen of the burqa can be. Where did this come from?
Singh: Every word spoken by the mullahs is from an actual book, The Ornaments of Paradise, which has all these rules about what the rich should wear, what the poor should wear, how a man should address a young woman. That makes it even funnier.
Shahid, one of the big issues in U.S. theater right now is making sure women's stories get told. Can you talk about your decision to write about an issue that affects women foremost?
Nadeem: I am a feminist playwright. One of my play collections, called The Husband Eaters, is about issues of empowerment and rights of women. We believe that the struggle for women's rights is not just about women. It's about human rights, democracy, and men. Men are affected if women are denied. It doesn't just demean women; it demeans men also.