Photo by Michael Brosilow
You don’t go to a play called Hatefuck expecting it to be subtle, and in the case of this First Floor Theater production of a play written by Rehana Lew Mirza, you would most definitely be correct in your assumption. This is a play so full of simulated sex that I feel the need to call out Intimacy Designer Samantha Kaufman for her extraordinary work that helped bring director Arti Ishak’s vision of the piece to the stage. But Hatefuck is more than just a Bizarro World romcom, more than boy meets girl, boy hates girl, girl hates boy as well, so (naturally) they build a sexual relationship. This is a play about being modern American Muslims. It is a play about American stereotypes of Muslims. It is a play about how modern American culture and academia teach us about Muslims.
It is also a play about how Muslims are not the “monsters” that our culture often portrays them to be, and that a generic Muslim cannot reasonably be represented as a “wild-eyed brown man who blows some shit up with a big ole generic ‘All-h Huakbar.'” It doesn’t pull punches on its religious politics any more than on its sexual ones.
The characters in this two-hander are Layla (Aila Ayilam Peck), a contemporary literature professor at Detroit’s Wayne State and a practicing Muslim, albeit of the thoroughly Americanized variety, and Imran (Faiz Siddique), an areligious best-selling writer of novels that portray Muslim men as terrorists. When Layla seeks him out at a party thrown by his publisher, her goal seems to be simply to justify her preconceived belief that he is the kind of man who would sell out his own people for success. As for him, when he learns who she is, his primary concern is why he has not made her syllabus. He is, after all, highly popular and, given “the impact of my work” and the dearth of Muslim writers in the canon, why wouldn’t he?
Not really the most promising start for a relationship, especially when she tells him that “I consider you… everything you say…everything you write…. inimical to humanity.” But they definitely strike powerful chords in each other, and the scene ends with them stripping each other’s clothes off.
A word about that: Mirza does not actually call in her script for onstage sexual acts, simulated or otherwise. She is happy with passionate kissing and fading to black. But Ishak, possibly knowing that the play would be performed on a simple platform set, doesn’t hold much back. To their and Kaufman’s credit, Peck and Siddique seem entirely comfortable with whatever they are called on to do. Of course, they are never naked onstage—though there are a lot of Isaac Pineda’s costumes that end up on the floor or tossed aggressively to the side—but both their physicality and language are more than suggestive, and there is nothing subtle about Troy Cruz’s pounding sound design either. Layla does not even need to make the obvious pun on her own name, “I’m a good lay”—though she does—to make the intensity of their attraction clear.
But, again, this playwright is not merely interested in the repeated actions suggested by her title. Layla happens to have a book of her own, a non-fiction translation of a Syrian refugee’s account of his life, and Imran offers to get his publisher to look at it. The book is a far gentler, far more honest, far less violent account of Muslims than any of Imran’s six lookalike best sellers is, though he is surely correct when he argues that sensitivity is not what readers crave. It is this contrast between her desire to portray Muslims in a more positive light and his willingness to add to the stereotype for personal gain that forms the angry wedge that keeps driving itself between them (before yet another “hatefuck” dispatches it).
“Who are you really writing for?” she asks him. “Conservatives won’t read a brown author, you offend all Muslims, so all you’re doing is giving white liberals titillating affirmation of their closet Islamophobia? Isn’t it time for a change?”
Their dangerous energy pulsates throughout the piece, and the actors are all in for their director’s vision and the playwright’s provocative questions. Mirza hedges her bets a little with an 11th-hour sexual harassment plot based on the concept that all Muslim women are subservient, but that truly just clouds the main issue and allows her an easy (or anyway easier) way to find an ending. And after that ending, a coda that takes place a year after the events of the play reveals just how much their relationship has changed these two people. It is obviously not for everyone, but Hatefuck stridently proclaims its political and religious iconoclasm and even revels in it. Still, it leaves its audience—the audience who choose to see it despite the title or maybe because of its titillating nature—with the powerful recognition that there is a lot more going on in Islam than Fatwas and Jihads, which is something we definitely ought to know but too many of us clearly don’t.
Hatefuck is a First Floor Theater production and is playing at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, until June 10. Tickets are available at firstfloortheater.com For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.