Hatef**k by Rehana Lew Miraza examines the complex relationship a Muslim author has with his religious/racial identity in an America that conflates “Muslim” with “terrorist.” He, like most of us, practices his religion more culturally than zealously but, again, like most of us, absolutely identifies with his heritage. Is he selling that heritage out by exploiting anti-Muslim fervor for money, writing novels that traffic in stereotypes? Or is he beating the bigots at their own game? And if so, at what cost to his soul?
As the play opens Layda Mahdi (Kavi Ladnier) a literature professor at Wayne State University has crashed a party at the home of a very successful novelist, Imran Siddiqui (Sendhil Ramamurthy). At once disarmed by his sexy good looks and outraged that he has made his money exploiting anti-Muslim fervor, she attacks, and attacks and attacks. She derides his work, disparages his character, and disavows his authenticity as a Muslim. Then they go to bed.
In thrall to her self-perceived purity, Mahdi insists the only way to write, as a Muslim, is to hammer truth in one way only. She floats the idea of whether she should put Siddiqui’s books on her syllabus and then cuts him down to size, telling him he’s not a good Muslim. For his side, Siddiqui disparages the university where she teaches, which pricks her ego. This sets up the antagonism that roils throughout the 90 minutes of the play at the WP Theater. We begin to question Mahdi’s motives as she continues to hack away at Siddiqui’s ego. Eventually it becomes clear that Mahdi is after Siddiqui’s publisher, not him, and if that requires stepping over Siddiqui, well, then so be it.
The play is solid, but I think Adrienne Campbell-Holt’s direction could have more nuance. High pitched antagonism is not sufficiently interesting a dynamic to keep an audience going for 90 minutes. At some point you realize nothing is ever going to change. In addition, Kavi Ladnier, however adept and attractive, is miscast in the role of academic seductress. She comes across as purely a scold. Sendhil Ramamurthy fares better. I think with an actress who better matched his vulnerability, the narrative would gain a plasticity it very much needs. I also think the writing bears a bit of scrutiny, to make the piece less a polemic and focus more on the actual relationship – however flawed – these two people are allegedly trying to create.
Rmamurthy has all the qualities the ‘author of the moment’ should have. He’s handsome, confident, fit and lives in the perfect apartment, designed by Anshuman Bhatia. And, indeed this set is perfect. From the floor to ceiling bookcase, mid-century furniture, perfect little bar to the details of what kind of plants and objèts decorate the shelves, the set reflects Siddiqui's character. This is the image he wishes to project – cool, literate and ‘in with the in crowd.’
The lighting design by Barbara Samuels is similarly ‘cool’ and dramatically effective. Through clever use of lighting patterns, to the accompaniment of at times slightly ominous music, lights-down scene changes become light shows, adding humor and keeping the energy glowing, as it were.
Human limitations. Emotional breakdown. Hot button issues. Betrayal. There’s a lot of exciting content to unpack in Hatef**k, but alas, ultimately what we have here is a failure to communicate.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"Ultimately, Hatef**k is another example of a genre that has become too familiar: The “play about art,” in which well-educated people debate the role and responsibility of the artist in society. Granted, it’s an important debate, especially when the artist is a member of an often-stigmatized group. But one can’t help feeling that, like Imran and Layla, the play is using that issue to avoid some deeper and messier questions."
Regina Robbins for Time Out New York