Rohina Malik didn’t intend to become a playwright. As the Niles North graduate tells it, the whole “highly acclaimed” thing just kind of happened.
“It was funny because I never pursued playwriting in college,” said Malik, author of Unveiled, a one-woman show playing free at Niles West High School on Friday. “I ended up majoring in religious studies, but by my 30s I felt like I wasn’t doing what I was meant to do.”
The 34-year-old, who performed in high school theater, decided to write her first play after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It traces the lives of five Muslim women who wear the hijab. Soon after it premiered in 2009 at 16th Street Theater in Chicago, Unveiled became a smash hit and Malik found herself performing the play at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago and Next Theatre in Evanston. Her next stop is the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco.
“What really inspired me was the backlash after 9/11,” said Malik. “People were facing such hatred and blame for something they did not do, and that inspired me to start writing and creating.”
Chris Jones, a critic with the Chicago Tribune, wrote in his March review: “Rohina Malik, the hugely talented writer-actress...is a remarkable new theatrical voice in Chicago. In her rich, upbeat and very enjoyable 70-minute collection of five character studies of Muslim women in modern-day America, Malik gives voice to characters from whom we hear far too little in the theater.”
The Chicago Reader’s Jack Helbig echoed Jones when he called Unveiled a "powerful solo show...five riveting tales of Muslim women.”
From a Muslim's perspective
Malik credits the success of Unveiled to the public’s appetite for more knowledge of Muslim culture, which, she says, is difficult to find in the mainstream media.
“People walk away [from the play] with a much better understanding of Muslim culture than when you turn on the news and see scary looking men with crude manners,” Mailk said.
“A quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, and I feel a bit disheartened to see images on [the] media. So what I was trying to accomplish with ‘Unveiled’ is a collection of stories to show the world that you cannot put women in one box and to address the stereotypes with the hijab,” she said.
The mother of four is a self-described “juggler,” who manages her family with her budding writing career. She said her perspective as a mother influences her writing.
“As a mom with children, it’s really scary because you wonder with all this ignorance and hatred--how really at the end of the day, ignorance is the most destructive, it is a weapon of mass destruction,” she said. “I really try with my play to inform people of who I am.
"I believe in art as a powerful to tool to promote peace and understanding,” Malik added.
At the moment, Malik is working on her first playwright commission at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. The Mecca Tales will have its first staged reading, free to the public, on June 13 as part of the Goodman’s New Stages Series for playwrights to collaborate on the writing process.
From a local perspective
The Skokie native spent the first 15 years of her life in London, where she lived with her parents, who are Pakistani immigrants.
“Seeing my mom and dad struggle as immigrants in London, and a lot of the racism we faced there, shaped a lot of my writing now,” Malik said. “I find myself at [a] subconscious level coming back to theme[s] of race, identity, heritage.”
When community members watch her performance at the high school at 6 p.m. Friday, she hopes they’ll be open to rethinking their role within Skokie, Morton Grove and Niles.
“If communities got to know their neighbors, they could realize just how similar they are,” Malik said. “We all want the same things: a great future for our kids; job security; the American dream.
"I think that by getting to know each other, we can see each other’s humanity,” she said with optimism.