PROVO — I’ve been told the success of a performance can be gauged by how the audience is sitting. If they are leaning forward in their seats, wanting to be closer to the performance then the show is successful. A Second Birth at BYU certainly met that criteria; I wanted to leap out of my chair to join the conversations happening on stage, to get involved in the characters lives.
A Second Birth takes place in Afghanistan, and tells the story of Nasim/Nasima, a girl who has spent most of her life pretending to be a boy. It is a practice in Afghanistan for girls to dress as boys to help support their families financially because boys can work outside the home for pay, while girls cannot. As a “bacha posh” Nasim attends school, plays soccer, works and has male friends and loving the freedom to learn, to work, to do what she wants. So when her parents tell her it is time to resume her life as Nasima, as a women, and soon as someone’s wife, she fights them every step of the way, demanding the freedom and opportunities she had as a boy.
As this is a new script (written by Ariel Mitchell), I feel it should be addressed in this review. I applaud Mitchell for taking on such difficult subject matter; she was able to create a specific story dealing with the religious and cultural traditions of the Middle East with themes that spoke to me in a theater in Utah. She raised questions about gender, equal opportunities and marriage that should be asked in every culture. When Nasima demanded to know what made men more suited for school and work and women more suited to household chores and caring for children, when she as a women was better at the former, I found myself nodding because I have asked the same question. Mitchell was able to ask these kind of questions in a way that did not disrespect the beliefs and practices of the groups she represented or performed for, so no one felt attacked or superior to another culture. While I feel the dialogue could use a bit of polishing, as parts of it felt stilted and unfinished, I loved the story line and the themes in conveyed.
I was also impressed with the cast of A Second Birth, particularly the women in the group. Marcella Toronto as Nasima did a wonderful job playing a man convincingly, then showing the struggle of switching to behaving like women are expected to. When her mother, Hoda (played by Briana Shipley) was helping Nasima change from her man’s clothes into women’s clothes, there was a steady stream of complaints about the skirt being too long, not being able to breathe, men’s clothing being more practical, etc. Toronto then spent the next few scenes tripping over her skirt, sitting with her knees apart and elbows resting on her knees, and arguing with the head scarf she was supposed to wear. The fighting with her clothes was a wonderful way to show Nasima’s fighting with the life she was supposed to lead and did not want to. One scene in particular showed Nasima’s conflict with the life she was supposed to lead as a woman. Her mother and sister Azadeh (played by Noelle Houston) were trying to teach Nasima household skills like cooking and sewing. Nasima’s friend Laila (played by Jennifer Chandler) came to join them. All three sat and moved in the same way, spoke in lighter tones, and were quite comfortable holding a needle or stirring a pot. Nasima, on the other had, stomped around, spoke loudly and harshly, and managed to burn herself and sew a piece of fabric to her skirt. The contrast between her and the other women in her life made her discomfort and unhappiness clear.
I also enjoyed the relationship between Nasim and his/her friend Yasir (played by David Lee.) As boys, they had a fun banter between them, with Nasim teasing Yasir for his poor math skills and Yasir mocking Nasim’s inability to play soccer. When Yasir discovers Nasim is actually a women, and the women he has been engaged to, their relationship is what saves the situation. At first Yasir is appalled and runs away, but his sister Laila makes him see that Nasima is still the same person that he was friends with and enjoyed being around. Because he knew her as a man, he is able to see her as someone equal to him.
One thing I found myself missing was a sense of urgency from some of the performers. I did not believe for example that Nasima’s father Zeman (played by Devin Wadsworth) would actually force her to do something she did not wish to. Zeman seemed so mild mannered; so when Nasima did what he told her to, it felt more like she was caving rather than that she truly had no choice. Hoda was a much stronger character; I believed she could force her daughter to do what she was supposed to. When Nasima started yelling that Hoda is a servant and mistreated as a woman, Hoda slaps her. It is the only time that Nasima was actually shut down for her opinions, and the fact that her mother rather than her father did it undercut everything that Nasima said throughout the play. Nasima said that men have more power, that women have no control over their own lives, but it never felt like her father actually had any power over her.
The set, designed by Rory Scanlon and Brent Robinson, solved the problem of a small space with seating in the round admirably. It was a rotating platform in the middle of the room, with small set pieces brought on and off. The actors who were not onstage sat around it and spun it slowly during the action, making it easier for everyone to see the action. I did find myself getting distracted watching the actors turning the platform, but not to the point that I missed any parts of the story. Considering the confines of the space, the rotating platform was a unique was to solve the problem.
The staging (directed by George Nelson) confused me. Because the performance space was so small and some action took place off of the platform, occasionally it was unclear who was on stage and who was not. The actors would often stand next to the platform when getting ready to enter, but they would stand in the same places when they were onstage as well. I found myself asking thing like: are they supposed to be onstage or off? Is there a door or wall there? Are they inside or outside? More clarity from the direction would have reduced my confusion.
The lighting, designed by Graham Whipple, did not always make it clear where the offstage areas were either. It was also occasionally difficult to tell where the scene was taking place. Sometimes actors would be interacting while one stood on the platform and the other stood on the ground. They could see and hear each other. But at one point, Azadeh was sent to find Nasima in her room, and, while staring right at her, is calling her name as though she can’t see Nasima. It took me a minute to realize there was supposed to be a door blocking Nasima from view. I found myself wishing for more clarity on the stage, because trying to figure out who was on and off and where they were distracted me from what was happening.
Anther concern I had was with the sound. Because the stage rotated, there were many times that I missed parts of sentences. As the platform turned the actors went from facing me to facing away. They were loud enough when they were facing me, but when they faced away or someone stood in front of them, I had trouble hearing. I wanted to hear what was happening, but I lost so many lines or parts of lines because the actors were simply too quiet. There were also moments where everyone was talking over each other and cutting each other off. It happened so often that the performance felt choppy, as though a large part of the script was written in half sentences rather than full thoughts. I don’t know if it was the script or the way it was staged, but I missed a lot of information because of actors talking over one another or not speaking loud enough to be heard.
Despite faults, A Second Birth was a breath of fresh air. I loved the script and the cast handled the unique subject matter fantastically. I have been attending shows at BYU for fifteen years, and have not seen anything like this piece. It is a different thing for the department, and I’m glad they took the chance to try something new. I wish the run was longer so I could see it again.