“Yasmina’s Necklace” looks at cultural identity through the lens of romantic comedy

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"Yasmina’s Necklace" is presented by Premiere Stages at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center on the campus of Kean University in Union, NJ

Kean Stage production of Yasmina’s Necklace is an exquisite play

Scene is "Yasmina's Necklace" at Kean Stage
Scene in “Yasmina’s Necklace” at Kean Stage. Photo by Bogdan Nastase

Yasmina’s Necklace, the latest offering at Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union, combines a romantic comedy with an examination of how much one should hold on to cultural and religious identity in a new, foreign land. Playwright Rohina Malik has produced a funny and touching look at two young people, each trying to navigate the pitfalls of being Muslim in Chicago in the 21st Century. She succeeds in creating a play that is by stages funny, romantic, serious, and heartbreaking. Yasmina’s Necklace is an exquisite play, and it is an honor to see it.

Yasmina’s Necklace, set in Chicago, introduces us to Abdul Samee (Cesar J. Rosado), a divorced business analyst, and his middle-class Iraqi father and Puerto Rican mother, Ali and Sara (Eliud Kauffman and Socorro Santiago). Ali and Sara want Abdul Samee to meet and marry a nice Muslim woman after the “shame” of his divorce from a non-Muslim American woman. The head of the local mosque, Imam Kareem (Robert Manning, Jr.), tells them of such a woman: Yasmina (Layan Elwazani), a painter recently emigrated from Iraq (via Syria and Turkey). She shares a run-down apartment with her father Musa (Haythem Noor), a respected Baghdadi dentist unable to practice in America.

Neither Yasmina nor Abdul Samee is looking to marry but they reluctantly agree to have the families meet. The initial meeting is a predictable failure, rife with misjudgments based on false expectations. But Abdul Samee agrees to aid Yasmina in achieving her dream of setting up a non-profit organization to help Muslim refugees, especially women and girls, resettle in Chicago. The two eventually fall in love and marry, but closely-held secrets threaten to come between them.

Scene is "Yasmina's Necklace" at Kean Stage
Scene in “Yasmina’s Necklace” at Kean Stage. Photo by Bogdan Nastase

Director Kareem Fahmy does his best work in having the relationship between Abdul Samee and Yasmina develop cautiously. He is also good in weaving the modern-day story with flashback scenes from Yasmina’s life, first in Iraq, then as a refugee in Syria. Unfortunately, opening scenes leading to the first meeting of the families are done in a broad comedic style, somewhere between slapstick buffoonery and TV sitcom-land. While the humor helps the audience get through early exposition, a more subtle touch would have humanized the parents, making their concerns more sympathetic and thus strengthening the play.

The cast is superb. Layan Elwazani and Cesar J. Rosado make a perfectly believable couple, gingerly testing the emotional waters as they learn to understand and get along with each other. It is a privilege watching two such fine actors create this couple. Behind the happy face of Haythem Noor’s Musa is resignation to his loss of position, willing to take on any job to make up for the fact that his dental degree is not recognized by America, seeing Yasmina’s marriage to Abdul Samee as a step up in status.

Scene in "Yasmina's Necklace" at Kean Stage
Scene in “Yasmina’s Necklace” at Kean Stage. Photo by Bogdan Nastase

Socorro Santiago’s Sara, ashamed of what she sees as her son’s disgraceful marriage and divorce, feels her own social status as a Latina in a mostly Middle Eastern community can be enhanced by the marriage of her son to a dentist’s daughter. This puts her at times at odds with her less status conscious husband, played by Eliud Kauffman with a touch of resigned tolerance found in many long-term marriages. Even Imam Kareem, portrayed with calm stateliness by Robert Manning, Jr., admits having to overcome the prejudices in the Muslim community to an American Negro spiritual leader. Finally, Peter Romano embodies a sense of self-sacrificing duty in the small but pivotal role of Amir, a childhood friend of Yasmina who remained behind in Iraq.

David M. Barber’s scenic design creates three distinct yet unified playing areas: the two apartments and in the center the mosque, symbolically separating and joining the two families’ spaces. In this he is aided by the lighting of Cha See and the sound design and composition of Fan Zhang. Dina El-Aziz’ costumes help round out and define the characters, especially a beautifully extravagant outfit worn by Sara at her son’s wedding.

Yasmina’s Necklace by Rohina Malik is a beautiful, emotionally true work mixing drama with comedy. Through its look at members of a Muslim and immigrant community in America, it gently reminds us how much we share our humanity through common struggles and hopes. It is a work of rare skill and charm brought to life by an outstanding cast and a sensitive director. I urge you to visit Kean University in Union to see Yasmina’s Necklace during its all-too-short run.

Yasmina’s Necklace is presented by Premiere Stages at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center on the campus of Kean University in Union through September 22, 2019. For tickets and information, visit premierestagesatkean.com.