All Atheists Are Muslim
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
August 12, 2011
Now more than ever, we need to both laugh and think seriously about the whole U.S. versus Iran thing. But how does a young Iranian American comedian assert all the aspects of her identity? The prejudice-busting association of Zahra Noorbakhsh (writer, solo-performer) and W. Kamau Bell (director) will show you in All Atheists Are Muslim.
Zahra plays a 25-year-old Californian student who wants her boyfriend to get out of Orange County and move in to her apartment. This happens all the time, but, as the character argues, it is not easy if one’s parents are traditional. Zahra’s parents are from Iran, and while not pressuring her to get married immediately, they clearly have their own idea of what “taking it to the next level means.” Zahra doesn’t see her boyfriend Duncan—holder of an English degree and a job with UPS—converting to Islam. Will she lose her ties to her family? Will Duncan run away from what he (and too many other Americans) sees through a racist, paranoid lens?
In America, it is not so uncommon to date someone from another cultural group. The familiar family drama is framed by some snippets of speeches made in 2005 by President G.W. Bush. Zahra jokes that if someone put one of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s screechy speeches on Bush’s desk, he would read through it—mistaking it for one of his own—and say, this is pretty good, I like the part about family values. So, if the dangerous rhetoric is in the hands of our countries’ leaders, how do we treat our own loved ones? Can we discard things we don’t believe and see each other as human beings? It is a kind of challenge. Duncan likes lamb enough to dine with Zahra’s family and, since he admits he is at least bound by the law of gravity, agrees that there is something out there that is bigger than he is. And this is humorously equated with being a Muslim.
This show is full of funny lines which Zahra Noorbakhsh deftly channels through four characters. For the most part, it is engrossing from beginning to end. The tension is palpable, and is aided by Zahra at one point having an ideological boxing match with her father. Director W. Kamau Bell (whose multi-cultural work was seen several years ago at FringeNYC) keeps raising the stakes of this conflict. I, your reviewer, should mention that I have been an American tourist in Iran and was so happy to see Persian flavors and hospitality on stage. If we are uncomfortable with the “other,” it is hopefully because on some level we are uncomfortable with ourselves. Fortunately, this evening I saw that that the flip side is also true.