A large white rug, a chic black couch and two side tables on a small stage create the intimacy of a hamam, a Turkish bathhouse where women chat and reflect, temporarily free from the presence of men. As each monologue is presented, the other women recline on the couch, occasionally chatting to each other, singing or interjecting in other languages. This setting adds a sense of intimacy to “The Veiled Monologues” essential to its success. Each woman isn’t trying to lecture or advance any kind of political view — she just really wants someone to listen.
With a cast of three actresses (Oya Capelle, Nazmiye Oral and Meral Polat) and one musician (Sercan Engin), “The Veiled Monologues” celebrates an exuberant universal womanhood in spite of cultural resistance.
After acting in a performance of Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” in 2002, Dutch actress, writer and director Adelheid Roosen decided to imitate Ensler’s approach by interviewing 72 Muslim women about their struggles with their own sexuality under the influence of a traditionally conservative culture. The result is a group portrait of love in the time of Islam, a series of penetratingly honest monologues that don’t shy away from the shocking or the taboo. Although the controversial subjects range from female mutilation to the repressive force of virginity, Roosen handles each monologue with grace and humor, leaving one feeling not appalled, but more connected.
In collaboration with the Yale Repertory Theater, the play is hosted by the World Performance Project which, according to the program, asks audiences to consider “the deeper intercultural tensions in a shrinking world.” During a director’s talk-back at the premiere Wednesday, Roosen emphasized the importance of forming ties with those who are being increasingly integrated into our communities.
“I wanted Dutch people to look and really see,” Roosen said, speaking on the show’s premiere in the Netherlands, “because we are one country, one people. We have to really get in touch with one another.”
One of the ways that the play succeeds in creating this sense of connectedness is by rejecting conventional stereotypes of Muslim culture, instead opting for an ambiguous presentation. For example, the first story is not really about a Muslim woman at all, but rather a white woman who converts to Islam and marries Muslim men despite the traditional views of repression and patriarchy.
But sometimes the audience has difficulty connecting with “Monologues” due to the women’s hesitations with the English language. Performed for the first time in English only weeks ago at its New York premiere, the actresses sometimes present distractingly halting deliveries. Some monologues, however, are spoken with a masterful-yet-naive use of broken English (“We make sex. … Me know orgasm next”). And since the three actresses are themselves of Turkish origin, the language problems also give a feeling of authenticity to the whole endeavor.
In the most moving monologue, Oral tenderly deals with issues of female genital mutilation. Here, an uncircumcised daughter living in Holland brings her traditionally circumcised mother to live with her. Her mother, suddenly an outsider and feeling ashamed, addresses her daughter: “Your friends look at me … I’m obliged to think it’s awful.” But the mother maintains her dignity. In a moment of mutual recognition and understanding, the daughter describes how they had both slowly removed their clothes and gazed at each others naked bodies. They were different, one circumcised and the other not, but each was beautiful.
“This is no political statement, no fight,” the mother says. “This is me.”