After a one-year production hiatus, Chicago Dramatists returns with a compelling and important world premiere penned by Rohina Malik, “The Mecca Tales.” Four American Muslim women of diverse backgrounds embark on their first pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, led by another, more experienced woman of a similar background. It’s a trying experience, both physically as the desert and huge crowds throw up obstacles to their journey, as well as spiritually, as they attempt to come to terms with their reasons for undertaking it.
Spun in a manner reminiscent of Mary Zimmerman’s masterful “The Arabian Nights,” but with stories more relevant and contemporary, Malik has managed to do something quite challenging: that is to take a religion and its customs, practiced by billions worldwide but misunderstood by millions of Americans, and convey its beauty and the deep spirituality of its followers in a subtle but powerful way to what is likely a primarily secular white Judeo-Christian audience. I was far more moved by this story of stories than I had ever expected, and hope that the widest audience possible makes its way to Chicago Dramatists and takes it in. It’s not an overstatement, I think, to say that the future of our nation and perhaps the planet is contingent on many of us gaining a better understanding of Islam.
Of course, in the wrong hands, stories become lessons, and audiences tune out. Fortunately Malik’s craftwork is brought to vibrant life by an outstanding cast of women—Anita Chandwaney, Celeste M. Cooper, Stephanie Diaz, Susaan Jamshidi and Morgan McCabe—under the direction of Rachel Edwards Harvith, who keeps it both meditative and brisk in its eighty-five minutes. Derek Garza plays all the male roles and does so with a disproportionate measure of charm, though I’d recommend he give up attempting the British accent that one of his many characters requires. And with Coren Warden’s quiet musical backdrop punctuating the sometimes poetic narrative, “The Mecca Tales” have the cumulative power of a prayer. (Brian Hieggelke)
At Chicago Dramatists, 1105 West Chicago, (312)633-0630,$18-$40. Through April 12.