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Blowback: Shaheed and The Arsonists
By Steven Leigh Morris Thursday, May 6 2010
The smoking Nissan Pathfinder in Times Square last week is an all-too-obvious reminder of the rage against us out there, like the rage against every empire in history. Were we benign yet powerful (and we are certainly not the former), we'd still be confronted with the threat of violence from extremists with a lesser grip on the reins of power. That's just world history. It's also the fuel for Shakespeare's history plays, from King John and King Lear to King Henry V; from Coreolanus to Macbeth: the exigencies and consequences of ambition. Precisely those exigencies and those consequences show up in a new translation (by Alistair Beaton) of Max Frisch's The Arsonists, well into its run at the Odyssey Theatre; and a new play, Shaheed, written and performed by Anna Khaja about "the dream and death" of Pakistan's slain leader, Benazir Bhutto. Shaheed opened over the weekend at the Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre near the Larchmont district. Shaheed is the kind of political biography that will garner attention because it's so topical. (In fact, it will be performed in the New York International Fringe Festival this fall.) Pakistan is obviously among the cadre of Middle Eastern nations that house al Qaeda and related militias, dedicated in principle to sending bomb-laden Nissan Pathfinders into Times Square.
That alone should be a source of curiosity for us. Furthermore, on April 15, the United Nations released a report condemning the government of former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for willfully failing to provide security for Prime Minister Bhutto (an advocate for democracy and women's rights) during a 2007 rally in Rawalpindi, where she was killed by a gunman and suicide bomber. (The report noted that the government provided an entirely different, higher level of security for rallies at which Musharraf's supporters headlined.)
The cleverness of Khaja's concept lies in her reluctance to portray Bhutto throughout — the kind of hot-dogging temptation that would have seduced a lesser playwriting talent. This is all the more notable because Khaja the performer bears a striking physical resemblance to the popular leader. Bhutto does show up in Khaja's gallery of eight characters but not until play's end. Up to that point, we meet women and men, all portrayed by Khaja, who have some connection to Bhutto. One of them is Bhutto's niece, journalist Fatima Bhutto, who seethes with resentment that her aunt is a pawn of the United States, a corrupt fashion- and celebrity-obsessed pop star and poster child for "democracy," and whose return to Pakistan — after a long exile during the 2000s — will merely lend legitimacy to the corruption and despotism of President Musharraf. This all could have something to do with U.S. air bases in Pakistan, but let's not get overly conspiratorial.
Had Khaja played Bhutto throughout, we would have gotten one woman's view of history from her words and gestures and — if we were lucky — perhaps some hidden insights lurking between and behind her words. What we have instead is a far richer portrait not only of a political superstar but of the world she inhabits — a world intrinsically related to our own security and destiny.
One of the evening's biggest laughs comes from Khaja's interpretation of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, informing Bhutto that the United States does not meddle in other nations' affairs. And she seems to mean it. This is all part of Rice's strategy to advise Bhutto of her role: to return to her homeland after years of exile, to win the election and to work with Musharraf. The aim is clearly to stem a brewing, internal revolt against Musharraf, and the U.S. interests he represents.
Add to the docket Cuseem, a Boston University professor and one-time supporter of Bhutto, who admits that, after being hung upside down for a few days in a Pakistani prison cell, he told the authorities whatever they wanted to hear. His soliloquy is a plea for forgiveness, performed by Khaja without a trace of melodrama — rather, with a kind of wry, world-weary complacency masking the agony of conscience he must now take to his grave.
Each of Khaja's characters has similar contradictions, layered into her performances with taste and intelligence. We meet a Bhutto-adoring rehri (taxi) driver who, for financial reasons, consigned his 13-year-old daughter to be a ward of the local cleric. Then we meet that daughter, who tells of her involvement in a holy escapade in which a prostitute and a brothel owner are brutalized, and of the need to cleanse Pakistan, with bombs if necessary.
And so it goes, linkages into a universe that grows increasingly surreal with more information. Bhutto's appearance is a slight letdown. Though she says less than in an earlier reading of the play, her words — carved into a speech of self-justification — are largely irrelevant because she's such a political creature. In this play, she's far more interesting as a symbol, and a silent one, than as a character dealing with father issues. Credit director Heather de Michele for the evening's abundant wisdom. Maureen Weiss' set resembles a three-part wooden stable gate that folds open and closes for the various locales — accentuated by Sam Saldivar's projections. (In the interests of full disclosure, Shaheed's producer, Luis Reyes, a former intern at L.A. Weekly, is an occasional contributor of theater reviews, and has volunteered with the L.A. Weekly Theater Awards over the years.) …
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SHAHEED | Written and performed by ANNA KHAJA | STEPHANIE FEURY STUDIO THEATRE, 5636 Melrose Ave., L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through May 22 | (323) 463-7378
SHAHEED: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto
Say the name Benazir Bhutto to a cross-section of Pakistanis and you’ll probably get as many different points of view as those expressed by the characters who people Anna Khaja’s Shaheed: The Dream And Death Of Benazir Bhutto.
Khaja’s acclaimed one-woman show (she plays all eight of its characters) has now returned for several Hollywood Fringe Festival performances before heading off to the New York International Fringe Festival in August.
A bit of historical background: As Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) was the first woman elected to lead a Muslim state. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, Bhutto endured the execution of her former Prime Minister father and her own imprisonment under solitary confinement before being twice elected P.M. (in 1988 and 1993) and twice removed from office under charges of corruption. Following a period of self-imposed exile, Bhutto returned to Pakistan in October of 2007. Less than three months later she was dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet.
Khaja opens Shaheed as Sara, an American co-ed for whom Pakistan’s fragmented life (it began as East and West Pakistan, two halves of the same country separated by a distance of over one thousand miles) reflects Sara’s own fragmented identity as the daughter of a Pakistani father who disappeared when she was little following “some kind of bullshit religious epiphany” and an American mother who refused to talk about him. The events of 9/11 inspire Sara to delve into Pakistani history and culture, most particularly into the life of Benazir, a woman whom Shaheed lets us see through the eyes of five different Pakistanis—and Condoleezza Rice—before introducing us to the lady herself. Each of Shaheed’s eight scenes takes place on December 27, 2007, the date of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
Khaja brings all of Shaheed’s female and male characters to life in eight strikingly different performances.
Following Sara, there is Condoleezza, who claims to see herself in Benazir (“We are the same age, women of color, politicians, forgers of democracy”) yet then goes on to threaten freezing all her monetary assets should she not do as the United States expects.
International journalist Daphne Barak is Benazir’s best friend who warns her to “get the fuck out” of Pakistan—and promotes her website . Pakistani religious studies professor Cuseem, who like Benazir suffered the horrors of solitary confinement and torture, explains to his Boston University students the various meanings of the much misused word “jihad” and reflects on his life in exile. Benazir’s embittered niece Fatimah blames her aunt for “those willing to die for Benazir,” declaring angrily that “there is blood on your hands, Auntie. So much blood. And for what?” Shamsher, a poor rehri driver, expresses the hope that Benazir’s return to Pakistan will mean that he can earn enough money to bring his 13-year-old daughter Afshan home from the madrasa where her food, clothing, and religious education are free, but where family visits are forbidden.
Shaheed’s most horrific sequence introduces us to Afshan herself, a teenager still more child than woman, who gleefully describes how she and her classmates pulled a prostitute from her bed, “charged her, and dragged her to the corner and beat her until she bled from the ears.” Horrendous as this act it, it pales in comparison with what Afshan then goes on to reveal.
Finally, there is Benazir herself, who speaks to us in the minutes before stepping out into the crowd which took her life.
As an acting vehicle, Shaheed provides its writer/star with yet another opportunity to show what Anna Khaja fans already know—that this is one of L.A.’s finest, most powerful, and most versatile actors. With this stunning piece of theater, she proves herself an equally fine writer, one whose words are sure to provoke much discussion (and much online research into the life of Benazir Bhutto).
Credit for Shaheed’s success is shared by director Heather de Michele, who keeps the play visually varied, aided by Carrie LaFerle’s dramatic lighting design and Sharif Khan’s equally fine sound design, which makes us hear as well as see the Pakistani world Shaheed introduces us to. Maureen Weiss’s set design slowly transforms itself from a wood-slatted wall into a cage-like enclosure, the closer we get to Benazir herself. Sam Saldivar’s projection design and Colyn Emery and Phil Young’s original music add to Shaheed’s moody, exotic atmosphere. Luis Reyes is producer, LaFerle and Victoria Watson stage managers, Vincent Richards assistant set designer, and Anna Fitzwater costume consultant.
Shaheed is that rare theatrical work that engrosses, elucidates, provokes discussion—and provides its star with a tour-de-force showcase for her gifts. On all these levels and more, it is a resounding success.
Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. Remaining performances Tuesday June 22 at 7:30 and Sunday June 27 at 2:00. Reservations: 323 882.6912
June 22, 2010
Anna Khaja’s Personal Journey to Shaheed
Features by Lee Melville | May 24, 2010
Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto, produced by Luis Reyes in association with Off-Chance Productions, continues Fri.-Sat., May 28-29, at 8 pm. Tickets: $18-$22. Stephanie Feury Studio Theater, 5636 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; 951.262.3348. Then as part of Hollywood Fringe Festival, it plays Mon., June 21 at 9:15 pm; Tues., June 22 at 7:30 pm and Sun., June 27 at 2 pm. Tickets: $15. Open Fist Theater, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; 323.882.6912. For further information, go to shaheedtheplay.com.
Anna Khaja makes an impressive figure as she walks on stage from the back of the intimate Stephanie Feury Studio Theatre and begins her journey recounting events just prior to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, 2007. For the next 80 minutes she mesmerizes her audience as she tells this tragic story. Before imparting words of the former Pakistani Prime Minister, Khaja becomes seven other characters, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Benazir’s niece Fatima Bhutto, who were affected by this inspiring world leader.
Khaja was part of the Ovation Award-nominated acting ensemble in David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the Mark Taper Forum, then in 2007 received her own Ovation nomination for Lead Actress when she originated the role of an Iraqi mother in Judith Thompson’s Palace of the End which also gained her an LA Weekly Award for Solo Performance. She has written Shaheed as well, which has been running since the end of April and is directed by Heather de Michele.
LA Stage blog talked with Khaja following a performance last week.
LAS: What inspired you to write this account of Benazir Bhutto?
KHAJA: I am half-Pakistani, raised by my Pakistani father. Despite this, the lens through which I view Pakistan has, for the most part, been inevitably very American. Benazir’s assassination filled me with questions about the world, about Pakistan, about myself. Shaheed was born out of my personal journey to answer these questions.
And as I learned more about Benazir’s life, I discovered an incredibly complex woman who also happened to be a world leader. She had so much conflict inside her, as an educated woman in an Islamic society, a person of privilege in a desperately poor country, a member of a family that was adored and feared and a human being tempted by corruption and excess. I found myself at once deeply admiring her and at the same time, doubting her motives. I asked myself, who was this woman? And why in the face of certain danger, did she go out in public on December 27, 2007 in Rawalpindi, of all places, the very spot her father had been hanged. Was it an act of great courage? An ego-driven addiction to adoration? An attempt to continue the work of her father? Or a conscious sacrifice in her political mission? In the end, I think, it was all of those things.
From the perspective of language, through the lens of Bhutto’s life, I wanted to explore the Islamic concepts of the “Shaheed” (martyr) and “Jihad” (struggle). Both of these Arabic terms have rich and beautiful definitions in Islam, and yet have also been appropriated by radicals for their own ends. A “Shaheed” for instance is what suicide bombers often call themselves. In my play, I attempt to show that perhaps Benazir best incarnated that term as one who died for a cause in true sacrifice for others. Similarly, “Jihad” is a word that invokes fear in many Americans. In my play, I attempt to reclaim the word, hopefully explaining that Benazir’s mission to unite Islam and democracy was itself a “Jihad.”
LAS: How much research did you do?
KHAJA: I read everything by Benazir and about her. I spoke a lot with my own father, of course, and with family in Pakistan. I’ve been speaking with an Australian woman in Pakistan who married a Pakistani and converted to Islam. Her unique perspective as an assimilated foreigner is fascinating as is her blog: dalishah.wordpress.com. Her in-laws were and continue to be big Bhutto supporters. Her father-in-law was present and working with Bhutto’s security team the day she died. The information the members of this family have provided for me is invaluable. I really found my play, which takes place in the last moments of Bhutto’s life, when I read The Way of the World by Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Suskind. It provides a bird’s eye view of the changes occurring within Benazir’s psyche in the last days of her life and how her story is intricately entwined with that of the Bush Administration and global politics in general.
LAS: How did you decide on the seven other characters you portray?
KHAJA: While I had initially thought this play would only have the sole character, Benazir Bhutto, my research led me to the conclusion that the only way to understand Benazir is to understand who she was to others. People’s perceptions of her were and remain varied and contradictory. She was despised and adored to degrees that we as Americans find difficult to comprehend. Politics, I’ve learned, is extremely personal in Pakistan. It is life or death. I decided the only way I knew how to tell this story was through multiple perspectives.
Four of my characters are fictional, drawn to illustrate the humanity of Pakistan: Sara, an American college student in Rawalpindi; Cuseem, a former democratic revolutionary turned Yale professor; Shamsher, a street vendor ecstatic at his precious Bibi’s return as she will mean a way to be reunited with his daughter; and the daughter herself, Afshan, a teenage Muslim fanatic who was sent to a Madrassa rather than to starve on the street.
The other four characters are real people: Condoleezza Rice, who conceived of the power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf that drew Benazir back to Pakistan; CNN interviewer Daphne Barak, who considered Benazir a close personal friend; Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s estranged niece and journalist who is highly critical of not only her aunt Benazir but also of Pakistani politics in general; and of course Benazir herself.
LAS: Why did you decide to do the play at Stephanie Feury’s studio?
KHAJA: Stephanie and my husband studied acting together in New York and remained friends. Though I do not study with her, I esteem Stephanie greatly as an actress, friend and teacher. It is clear she has inherited her parents’ legendary gift for nurturing actors. I also respect her dedication to creating an artistic community in Los Angeles. I love the intimacy and elegance of Stephanie’s theatre which is why I chose to have this run of Shaheed there.
LAS: Describe your working relationship with Heather de Michele. Did she ask you to make changes in the script?
KHAJA: I had only worked with Heather for a single day on the web series The Real Girls Guide to Everything Else, another Off-Chance Production she directed. But, I was sold immediately. Heather is a highly collaborative, open-minded and committed director which I knew was essential for this work in progress. And, indeed, we worked together to make necessary adjustments to the script throughout the rehearsal process. Heather strikes for the actor the perfect balance between space and a firm guiding hand. I believe most actors are in search of a director with this magical balance. It is truly a gift.
LAS: What has Off-Chance Productions presented previously?
KHAJA: Off-Chance produced Anatomy of a Slap at Son of Semele theatre in 2008 (Flavor Pill’s Theater Pick). In February 2010, Off-Chance premiered The Real Girls Guide to Everything Else (a web-series distributed by Strike TV and After Ellen). And, this fall, a new Off-Chance play Limitations of Genetic Technology premieres at Theatre of NOTE. The entire company, especially co-artistic director Luis Reyes, has contributed enormously to Shaheed’s evolution.
LAS: What are the future plans for Shaheed?
KHAJA: Shaheed will participate in the Hollywood Fringe Festival at the Open Fist theatre in June. Then we are off to the New York Fringe Festival in August. From there, the moon!
Article by Lee Melville
LA THEATRE REVIEW
SHAHEED:The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto
by Joel Elkins~
Shaheed is a one-woman, one-act show about a one-of-a-kind woman. Anna Khaja takes on the roles of eight separate characters: Benazir Bhutto herself and seven other people whom the two-time prime minister had touched in some way. In these vignettes we view through the eyes of Pakistanis the woman raised from infancy to take her father’s place as leader of Pakistan.
We also encounter the diversity of Pakistan: the American student who feels she can finally be proud of her Pakistani heritage, the college professor who held “BB’s” words in his heart as he was being tortured by the military authorities, the man on the street who heralds her return to Pakistan, and the young girl in the madrassa who vows to sacrifice herself and everything she has, in order to put an end to Bhutta and her “infidel” ways. The play pulls no punches, even discussing the charges of crime and corruption that have been leveled against her by her critics.
Khaja, who also wrote the script, gives a brilliant performance, managing to capture each character’s distinct accent, mannerisms, character and passion. The play was directed by Heather de Michele.
Shaheed plays June 21 at 9:15 p.m., June 22 at 7:30 p.m., and June 27 at 2:00 p.m.
LA STAGE WATCH
by Don Shirley | June 24, 2010
I know — great solo shows exist, and I’ve seen some of them. But an unknown solo show is likelier to be a self-indulgent, badly edited showcase than a similarly unknown production that requires more collaboration. Furthermore, if a show is bad, the experience is worse if you have to keep focusing on only one person. If the audience for a bad solo is so tiny that the one performer also keeps focusing on you, you’re in theatrical hell.
This no-solo-show criterion quickly eliminated a lot of the festival’s offerings from my might-see list. The festival publicist reports that about 65 or 70 solo efforts dot the approximately 160 performance-based shows (apparently an exact count would be difficult). Surely it’s easier, financially and logistically, to enter a solo show in a fringe festival than it is to assemble a larger group of people for such an event.
So was I a contented Fringe follower? Not entirely. The collaborative Fringe productions I saw weren’t great. On Monday, I broke one of my rules and saw a solo comedy show, but it also fell into the middling range. On Monday evening, I abandoned my guidelines and saw a solo play by an L.A. artist whose work was previously known to me. Only then did I get excited enough about a Fringe show to enthusiastically endorse it....
That show is Shaheed: the Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto. Anna Khaja plays seven characters who knew the assassinated Pakistani leader - including some who were very critical of her, men as well as women - before playing Bhutto herself. It’s a revelatory performance, yet it feels like a real play, not a showcase. You can read an interview with Khaja here. The final performance is at the Open Fist at 2 p.m. Sunday.... (for full article, visit: