It’s a very intelligent play, is “Jado Jehad.” And it certainly shows — especially in the character of the Pakistani grandmother, Manzoor — how powerful culture is in both protecting us from life’s vicissitudes and exposing us to the torments of our own and the bearers of other cultures — especially if these other-culture bearers are family, to wit, Manzoor’s own daughter and grand-daughter.
Fatima A. Maan’s play was performed at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre from February 16 through 26. It was directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary.
Manzoor, played by Jyoti Daniere, has been dunked from a childhood in less global times in an old and highly complex culture to the nerve-endings of every tip of every finger. What she is not prepared for is an American-educated grand-daughter and a daughter whose upbringing was somehow, even without a stay in America, affected by the hegemony of American values over more traditional cultures and values.
For me, the dramatic spotlight of this play shone most revealingly upon this complexity of character in Manzoor, as her strategy of life as a Muslim both brilliantly worked and failed brilliantly.
Manzoor is blinded to other forms of spirituality, especially that of her granddaughter, Marshal, who looks not continuously up towards heaven to become more perfect, according to eternal commandments, but to perfect herself in science to bring about humanity’s future happiness by her teamwork with other accomplished individuals here on earth.
Manzoor, on the other hand, will always be perfect in her subservience to and service to her husband even as he holds his superior position to her in the afterlife. Manzoor’s brooding on how exactly she will be assured of this continuing service without operation of her earthly senses results one day after years of yearning, when, in an epiphany, her Muslim god connects with Manzoor to assure her that her smallest services reach her husband in heaven.
Though still troubled by what Manzoor sees as her daughter’s and granddaughter’s apostasy, she becomes settled enough in her own self as a Muslim woman to, at play’s end, accompany them to their home’s soul, America, where they flourish, and Manzoor survives with their help and understanding.
My trouble with enjoying this drama in all its actions and characters is that, for me, it was the anxiety and blindness and final survival-of-compromise of the ‘head’ of the family, Manzoor, that was most dramatically transparent in its tragic lows, and transcendent highs; whereas, the journeys of the other actors, although very competently enacted, weren’t apparent enough to me in their highs and lows to engage my emotions.
I didn’t feel the brush of the dramatist touching, for example, the granddaughter, Marshal, with the darker colors of Manzoor, except for the beginning scene where Marshal, played by Vidisha Agarwalla, is only alive while driving a car in the nighttime streets of Pakistan so fast that — her womanly attributes not being obvious to passersby — she passes for and feels herself to be a man.
This brilliantly dramatic scene of existential angst is a promise whose dark colors shift, to this reviewer, to the more comic hues of an accomplished, young Pakistani-American woman being nagged from threshold to bedroom by her grandmother whose house she’s living in, but only, it seems to her and to us, accepted, if she continually cleans the house — nearly impossible, and also, cleans up her erring self, completely impossible!
This situation seems more comic than true to the life of an educated, resilient, self-respecting woman who has tasted the doom of Pakistani culture in her nighttime drives but doesn’t realize in the light of day that she must either move out or move both out and away. And soon!
This unfortunate, but hardly tragic, situation endures to the play’s end, when some transformation occurs, unseen dramatically, to this viewer, which lifts the whole household back to the promised land of America.
Perhaps this transformation is leveraged by a lesbian relationship which affects, as she lurches from comedy to desperation, the mother, and more seriously the daughter. Telling both, to different depths, that they are dangerously flirting with a culture they’ve outpaced.
These scenes are vividly acted out by their characters — plaudits here to Sushmita Udoshi’s “Amal” — but I couldn’t deeply empathize with them, as I did with the grandmother’s struggles with the contradictions of her one Muslim culture as it both consoles and leaves her bereft of her husband’s guiding light.
Was this critic’s dilemma because the drama of these different life experiences, their pain and joy, was portrayed thinner in some places than others or because my own life experiences need deepening for me to comprehend this drama fully in all its cross-cultural aspects?
In looking back, I thank the dramatist, Fatima A. Maan, for exposing me to both entertainment and schooling in some central struggles of our shrinking but not yet widely tolerant — let alone comfortably cosmopolitan world — and to the actors for the dramatic energy of their portrayals in a world of sharp corners for those adventurous souls compelled to travel beyond their natal cultures, native sensibilities.
And thanks to director Kathleen O’Leary, who kept me safe in my front row seat from brimming passions that threatened to explode by corralling them all in a prim and thoroughly cleaned Pakistani living room.
Also, thanks to all for riding herd over a stage that wheeled from gritty realism to jokey comedy to a surrealism that tossed and tumbled amongst these strange bedfellows as uneasily as my shifting metaphors.
(Boston Playwrights’ Theatre next presentation, “Alligator-a-Phobia in 3D! A Play With Music by Jay Eddy,” directed by Shamus, is scheduled to take place from April 6 through 16 at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, Massachusetts. For more details, visit https://www.bu.edu/bpt/performances/alligator-a-phobia-in-3d/.)