by Ryan Leeds
Greek sages once philosophized that “to know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” which may be true in terms of examining motives of the heart and mind. But how does one come to know one’s self when cultural identity is kept out of sight, questions are left unanswered, and fraternizations with multiple ethnicities and backgrounds make it impossible to declare one’s own foundation?
Aya Aziz can explain in her thoroughly engrossing one-woman production of Eh Dah? – Questions for my Father, a musical for which she wrote book, music, and lyrics. She is tenderly accompanied on piano, bass, and hand drum under Shawn Chang’s musical direction. As the show opens, Aziz is working at a chili bar where she “collects characters” (customers) and jots them in her notebook so she can bring them to life onstage. It’s a smart tactic and this sensitive artist has a real knack for impersonation.
Aziz was raised in New York City by an Egyptian immigrant father and an American mother who held a post doctorate in bird behavior. As a 6-year-old girl, Aziz went to Cairo with her father, an international traveler and human rights advocate. It was here where her curiosity of ancestry and religious heritage was piqued, much to her father’s dismay. He shielded her because she “benefited from that separation,” which, in his eyes, was a rough life.
As an elementary school student, Aziz attends the “The Hippie School” in Greenwich Village with a leftist after-school drama teacher who refers to Aziz as her “sweet, exotic, china doll.” In a solo song, she makes her first feeble attempt at piecing together who she is:
“Ghetto Hippie Arab Commie China Doll
You’ve Got Too Many identities/Contrasting personalities,
Formalities depending on the day
How did so many people fit into a single nobody,
And that nobody is?”
Poignant moments like these are abundant in this 90-minute show. Upon attending Muslim Camp with her cousins, she begins an even deeper search for her faith:
“I wanna learn how to pray
I wanna learn what I can do to belong here
I wanna learn all there is to see
I wanna be a part of this part of me.”
In addition to her already complex background, Aziz begins to get in touch with lesbian feelings—a revelation that is met with general shock and confusion by her cousin, Abdu who proclaims, “Damn, Abdu, you just f**king sh** up in all the ways!” She does find resolve in this through self-understanding:
“You kiss boys, you kiss boys.
You kiss girls, you kiss girls.
Life is about more than that. It’s about what you do for the world not where you come from or who you are.
It’s what you do. Keep it simple.”
At 22-years-old, Aziz has acquired an immense knowledge of the world and her own self. It is a rare acquisition that many people much older never have the privilege to discover. Although the show has a limited run as part of this year’s New York Musical Festival, Aziz possesses a hunger to continue sense of her story.
Corrine Proctor’s direction is clear and Aziz moves with general ease between her dozen plus characters, though the show could use some tightening. There are scenes that require either a song or dialogue but not both. Aziz is a significantly stronger actor than singer, but her raw, untrained voice possesses a natural beauty that allows us to empathize with this beautiful, constantly evolving soul.
Eh Dah? – Questions for My Father
June Havoc Theater
West 36th between 8th and 9th
Final Performance: July 28
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 on Facebook.