Cover photo: Aizzah Fatima as Zahida Zaman in ‘Acquittal’ at Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.
By Ryan Leeds
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, which began in 1977 by Tisa Chang and her fellow artists at LaMama, is currently celebrating its 40th season. It was Chang’s vision to offer more opportunities for Asian actors, break stereotypes, and expand a greater theatrical dialogue. Acquittal, by Shahid Nadeem, is solid evidence that her vision has been honored—and that her theater company remains a crucial voice within the theater community.
Nadeem’s brief but potent play takes place within a confined Pakistani jail cell (designed with an appropriate air of depression and claustrophobia by You-Shin Chen) during the 1980s. Zahida Zaman (Aizzah Fatimah), an educated and affluent member of the Pakistani Democratic Party. Zaman is also vice-president of the Women’s Association. She serves as the narrator for the story and has been unfairly imprisoned for her political activity.
Zaman’s fellow inmates are also serving time for actions deemed unlawful by government officials. Jamila (Gulshan Mia) murdered her abusive husband since Islamic law forbids divorce unless it is negotiated at the time of the wedding ceremony. Jannat Bibi (Shetal Shah) finds herself paying for the crime of theft that her son, Dilawar committed. Perhaps the most heartbreaking character in the play is Marium (Salma Shaw). A rape victim, she has chosen to have her baby in spite of opposition. ‘They tried to force her,” Jamila explains, “but she scratched the doctor with her nails until he started bleeding. She was adamant, she said she would give her life but she wouldn’t permit the child to be aborted. She’s very stubborn, the crazy woman.”
Nadeem’s gift for character development is quite adept. Within the first ten minutes of the play, Zahida notes that nobody talks. “At least the wretches let me keep the radio, otherwise it would have been difficult to pass the time here,” she laments. Quickly, Nadeem reveals the inner struggles that each of them has endured and creates a united bond between the four. Although the technique is a bit formulaic, it works quite well here.
While it is unclear if Nadeem based his characters on actual individuals, he does place the action against actual historical events. In the early 1980’s, General Zia-ul-Haq rose to power as the president of Pakistan. A staunch follower of Islam, Zia replaced the Pakistan Penal Code with Hudood Ordinances. This led to the unjust imprisonment of women and minority groups. Nadeem was inspired to write the play after meeting Madeeha Gauhar, a woman’s rights activist who was arrested for campaigning against these laws. As a sweet side note, Nadeem and Gauhar eventually married.
Director Noelle Ghoussani has assembled a fine cast and has been careful not to let them become too maudlin. Tahira Naqvi, a senior Urdu language lecturer at New York University, translated the play, which was originally performed in the late 80s at the Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan. Naqvi has allowed the themes to speak for themselves in straightforward dialogue, leaving an even stronger impression with audiences.
Adding even more validity to this work is the playwright’s own experience as a political prisoner. According to program notes, Nadeem “wrote [the play] on pieces of paper while waiting for an underground train or a bus in freezing cold. It wasn’t easy for me to get a feel for the plight of women under a fundamentalist military dictatorship but my own experience as a political prisoner came in handy.”
As a result of the Hudood Ordinances, the Women’s Action Forum was started. It remains a thriving organization that lobbies and advocates for women in Pakistan and throughout other Middle Eastern countries.
Pan Asian Repertory has not only given theatergoers an evening of provocative and engaging theater but it has also piqued a curiosity for learning more about this troubling time in history, caused us to reflect on our current age of world injustices and reminded us that citizens can (and will) force change over inequitable power.
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Through June 25th
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.