Show of Respect

Show of Respect

Like the play itself, the stage for Long Wharf Theatre’s current show, Amm(i)gone, requires an introduction. It’s located at 53 Wall Street, but the entrance you want is around the corner on Church, where a circular golden portal yields a lanterned path to a door steeped in purple light. Beyond the door is a tight check-in station with friendly faces, refreshments (I bought a locally produced Gorilla Lemonade) and an usher who leads you—or, as in my case, whisks you; the effect was transportive—around another couple of corners into a surprisingly spacious black-box theater.

The stage is covered wall to wall with area rugs and a scattering of wooden boxes, each styled with Arabic motifs or, in the case of one prominent carpet, contemporary sandy swirls. A desk to the right is clearly one anchor of the performance to come. So is a large projection screen across the back wall, playing for the moment what the audience will discover is footage of Adil Mansoor as a child during a ceremonial reading of the Quran.

Mansoor, Amm(i)gone’s writer, director and star, knows we’re going to need help orienting ourselves to this oddly named and unconventionally structured one-man show. The performance starts with a kind of voiceover: documentary recordings of Mansoor describing his interest in the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone and in embarking on a project to translate that play to Urdu, the national language of his native Pakistan, with his “ammi,” his mother. Then comes a recording of the phone conversation in which Mansoor very cautiously proposes the project to her—prompting her, to his delight, to signal her own interest with less caution than he expected.

Mansoor then addresses the audience directly, a thing he’ll do until the play, described in the script as a “lecture-performance,” concludes. When we hear, off the bat, that Mansoor is “a theatre director and educator centering queer folks of color” and that his ammi is “a single mother, a Sunday school teacher, a social worker, and a devout Muslim,” we can already imagine both their bridges and their impasses. It’s not quite a surprise a moment later when Mansoor confesses that, “as mother and son, we love each other so hard that our love constantly threatens to break us. And it feels like we don’t know how to talk to each other anymore.” The implied conflict is soon made explicit: Mansoor’s mother strongly disapproves of the fact that, as Mansoor later quips, he’s “Google-ably gay.”

It wasn’t always a problem, but it’s been one since before he was Google-able. “My mom wasn’t just my best friend. She was my only friend,” he says of their relationship when he was a child. Young Adil—“AH-dill” at home, “uh-DEEL” at school—was bullied in class “for the way I smelled and the way I looked,” he says, and at the mosque “for the way I spoke or the way I pranced down the hall.” In middle school, he discovered theater, finding a lifeline—a life—but also, in his ammi’s eyes, an unwelcome revelation and the catalyst for a growing rift. “She stopped coming to see me perform,” Mansoor says. “I stopped inviting her.”

This dynamic continues well beyond theater and well into adulthood. A sort of cold war sets in, where important pieces of Mansoor’s life, especially his longtime partner, Luke, aren’t even discussed. But the redaction becomes so heavy that Mansoor wonders, in his mother’s eyes, whether he even really exists. When the play’s title, aside from being a kind of portmanteau of “ammi” and “Antigone,” asks, “Am I gone?”, this is what it’s getting at.

The proposal to co-translate Antigone marks a chance to connect over something, but it’s also a chance to progress in other areas, creating a neutral, lower-stakes room for discussing conflicts that may in some ways chip away at their own while also invoking the ritual of translation—an act for which his mother, the much more fluent Urdu speaker, will be key. After initially giving us some background on the play, Mansoor deftly creates a lean-in moment with the start of a kind of multimedia family slide show to which he’ll return now and then. Using an overhead projector, he shows the audience a family portrait from his childhood, the kind with a marbled backdrop that you could get at a photo studio in the mall in the ’80s or ’90s. His mother’s portion of the photo, however, is covered with fabric. This photo was taken before her religiosity deepened, before she adopted the custom of wearing a hijab, and Mansoor is respecting her faith—whose tenets, as she interprets them, have caused him so much pain—by not revealing her uncovered visage to us.

This is an act of grace and charitability echoed over and over in the play. “There is no right or wrong here. There is no good guy or bad guy, no antagonist or protagonist. My mom and I are just trying to figure out how to be our full selves without disappearing,” Mansoor says at one point. In honoring his mother’s perspective as much as his own, in honoring that she also wants to connect despite their differences, Mansoor commits a noble, even heroic, act. His own beliefs, framings and assumptions—even his own prejudices, such as when he suggested, in an aside, that there’s something inherently oppressive about a “majority-white workplace”—certainly come through, but it’s commendable that Mansoor also spends so much time conveying his mother’s convictions, struggles, achievements and acts of service, from sewing her young family’s clothes to quietly pursuing an anti-discrimination lawsuit against her former employer and using the winnings to help fund her daughter’s education.

Mansoor’s example offers an answer to what is perhaps the deepest and most universal question Amm(i)gone asks: How can we find the strength and wisdom to respect each other—even or especially across vast differences—before all ties are severed?

Written by Dan Mims. Images, featuring Adil Mansoor performing Amm(i)gone, provided courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.

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