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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Matter of Nadiyah Hassan

Or: Amazing Grace

By Emily Acker

All of humanity is fragmented. We dream and speak of a world where all can coexist in harmony, but the sad fact of the matter is that we are always going to be divided by our histories, the colors of our skin, the names we give to G-d, what we don’t have, where we come from, and how we look at the world. The fact of the matter is that people are people, and aught to be treated like people.

Acker, an emerging playwright and graduating senior addressees this theme in her latest play. She doesn’t give any answers but reminds us to be sensible and compassionate toward even to the worst amongst us. She gives us a story, a weighty and well told story, about Nadiyah Hassan, a black muslim teenage girl from a city family attending a suburban all girl’s Catholic school. Despite being a first rate thinker and a budding poet Nadiyah is, sadly but not unsurprisingly, ostracized by her peers who do not even take the trouble to say her name correctly. (For the record it is properly pronounced “N’dee-ah” not “Nah-dee-ah”). In her isolation Nadiyah has gotten herself into a rather delicate situation and the powers that be: her sympathetic English Professor, the helpful but rather impotent Principal and the Strong and Commanding (coughtyranicalcoughcough) head of the school board descend upon her to decide her future.

Despite the title, this story is not just about Nadiyah and her troubles. Acker, in the micro-labratory of St. Margret's Academy for Girls isolates all sorts of social issues and universal struggles. From the blindness of our “ruling” classes, to the frustration of trying to correct past wrongs, to the futility of trying to be heard when others have stopped listening. Acker’s characters break from their stereotypical molds and buzz with an overlay of chords, righteous and wicked, whose harmony can only be described as Fully Human. You will scorn each and everyone of these creatures (even the blameless), and you will love them fiercely too (even the guilty). In addition, the play’s scenes, like a coral reef, builds upon itself, as one revelation or throwaway line crystalizes and somehow somewhere will take the form of some new outcropping of theatrical brilliance. While you see this dramatic reef taking shape, you are also treated to the swirl of articulate intelligent lines that not only ring true to life, but also fairly address the divides between soul and soul, happiness and disappointment without ever once becoming preachy or pretentious.

I wish I could find something lacking in the play to highlight for improvement. No play is ever perfect and no playwright should ever be given the disservice of being told to sit on their laurels. Yet, D*mn if I can find any fault to point out. Thematically, philosophically, linguistically, characteristically The Matter all comes up with flying colors. I would pay good money to see this set up at Steppenwolf, just as long as it kept this cast. They burst out of the line of music stands under the direction of Dumaine and guided by the clear voiced Mueller the plays dramaturge.

Let us begin with the strong (coughtyranicalANDpigheadedcoughcough). Ellie Cummingham (Carlson), director of the school board, daughter of the late principal and current head of long line of powerful american aristocrats. She runs the school (like her late mother before her) like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a rich busybody with the best way of doing things. She also brings a very...traditional view of the world, where every place has its thing and every thing in its place (black muslim teenagers have their place, far away from her school.) But even aristocrats are sensible to feeling. Carlson’s gift is to show us the veins of tenderness that thread through Cunningham’s marble-hard dogmatism. She takes the archetypal villain of thousands of films, plays, and stories, and makes her relatable. Even in her bigotry and her coldness, Carlson holds the mirror up and eyebrows us into taking a good long look.

She is equally matched in the mental coal-raking by her daughter MaryJane Cunningham (Nadal). Very much her mother’s daughter MaryJane has yet to solidify herself into a WASP Queen, which leaves her open to all sorts of doubts about her life and future and which makes her acts of cruelty all the more despicable. It’s like Abigail Williams or Mary Tilford be born. Even behind her music stand, Nadal gives us a white knuckled peep show of MaryJane’s mask slipping, exposing all the rabbit fear underneath.

In the opposite corner from these bafflingly sympathetic villains stands Ms. Anna Gutierez (Thompson), the kind of English Teacher you always wished you had as an instructor and confidant. She sees a lot of her own High School suffering Nadiyah’s situation and is always quick to defend her. But her own scars sometimes change her from an upholder of justice to a childish reactionary. This is a line which Thompson walks ably, teetering from one side to another without ever setting her scale as either heroine or determinator.

In the middle of The Matter is Dr. Paul Marcel (Corlew), the recently elected Principal. He is a good man in a bad fix, who puts his faith in G-d and tries his best to make each of his students welcome, but generally fails even at the most elementary of tasks. Corlew gives us Marcel’s discomfort, his bumbling, and shines out with his good nature through shutters of an intensely private performance. He invites us to see this poor man’s suffering as he strives to do the right thing and we rush in to peak and coo “poor soul”. His last turn in the play, ambiguous though it may be, is a matter of particular fine control and grace.

Corlew is perfectly matched, in his lovable ineffectiveness, by Lulu (Schwartzenberger), MJ’s lefthand girl, better half, and filterless pontificator. In her own way Lulu is just as despised, as lonely and as peculiar as Nadiyah, who she continually tries to befriend. Lulu supplies us with the release valve of laughter in this intensely (and necessarily) uncomfortable play. I would not be too far off the mark to say she has the clearest arc, from a chipper gossip to a saddened student and finally a friendless scapegoat albeit one who has grown a spine, finally. Through all this Schwartzenberger keeps us laughing even between our hisses of surprise and sympathy.

Which brings us finally to Nadiyah (Theard). Cornered by her disadvantaged position and her own rebelliousness into a bad situation, this young poet (and what poetry, oy) strives to maintain her grace and dignity, but when confronted with injustice or stupidity, she can fall into a fit of stubbornness and tactlessness which is perfectly realistic but not what you expect from a heroine. Theard, fastens herself to the mast of her character’s plunging ship, and guides it to a stirling shore. You cannot say “Wow, she’s good. She’s really going through h-ll up there” because you are too busy weeping along with her.

The Matter, is a perfect play that tackles the question of devisions that, for lack of a better word, divide us. WIth such hands and voices as these, Acker can show us the whole scope of human nature in an evening in the best language you could hope to find, leave you squirming but eager for another lesson in grace.

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