There’s been a problem with ethnic representation in Western media regarding people of Levantine and Arabic descent. With shows like “24” (2001-2010), “Homeland” (2011-2020) and “Sleeper Cell” (2005-2006) equating representation with “terrorist,” it’s time to take off the kid gloves and be blunt about calling for fair representations of brown-skinned people in television, movies and theater.
Hence the name “Hatefuck,” a show that portrays “real” Muslim characters who spend half the show in their undergarments, twisting and contorting in all manner of sexual positions, and the other half having deep conversations about the damaging depictions of Islamic characters in popular media. This ninety-minute “sexcapade” is written by Rehana Lew Mirza and directed by Arti Ishak at First Floor Theater.
In a posh and sparsely decorated apartment, a successful author of action-thrillers, Imran (Faiz Siddique), is hosting a party when he spies a beautiful woman standing alone in the corner. Literature professor Layla (Aila Ayilam Peck) uses her acerbic wit, expressive eyes and twisted smile to draw him closer. As soon as the last guest leaves, it is off with her red dress and his gray trousers as the two launch into furious lovemaking!
But this was by design. Layla tells Imran how disappointed she is at his depictions of Muslim people in his trashy books, with men portrayed as sadistic terrorists and women as seductive succubae. Imran is apathetic and nonchalant. He’s built his whole career on giving the people what they want. Representation is representation, right? Wrong, and it was Layla’s plan to “fuck you into a better person,” which proves more difficult than she imagined.
A brutal dialectic unfolds. Layla questions how he can turn his back on his Muslim faith; Imran questions how she can cling to antiquated beliefs while acting like an autonomous woman, her sexuality a contradiction to her religion. After being in a relationship for six months, they fall into a pattern of attacking one another with cruel and explicit verbal assaults that build into eruptions of passionate sex. Things come to a head when an egregious crime is committed against Layla that forces Imran to choose between his career and human decency, between greed and love.
Director Ishak makes fantastic use of the spartan surroundings by set designer Paloma Locsin, consisting of nothing more than an overstuffed couch and a clothes rack atop a circular stage. The use of different vertical levels during dialogue is Olympian, with scenes where both characters switch positions every other sentence—tumbling over furniture or sprawling on the floor—while not missing a beat of dialogue.
Playwright Mirza wields the pen like an illusionist, creating the meta experience of criticizing the entertainment industry for its lack of genuine Muslim characters while simultaneously showing how to do just so.
Profound and provocative, “Hatefuck” addresses the problem of poor representation of Muslims in popular media and provides an answer by portraying characters that neither lean into stereotypes nor play up the exotic “other.” “Hatefuck” is the modern Muslim love story with a phenomenal script by Mirza and a fantastic directing debut by Ishak.
“Hatefuck,” First Floor Theater through June 10 at The Den Theatre, 1331 North Milwaukee. Tickets are $35 here. A limited number of free tickets are available by using the code FREE to unlock one complimentary ticket (subject to availability).