by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

A former Columbia neuroscientist turned high school biology teacher, Dr. Guy Royston (Jeff Marlow) and his gifted Yemeni-American student, a high school senior, Yasmeen al-Hamadi, (Medalion Rahimi), form an unlikely scientific partnership in the hope of securing her a scholarship to a prestigious science program.  Unlikely, though it seems, despite their incredible differences and barriers in age and background, they nevertheless find themselves in a surprisingly compatible and workable situation.

The biggest hurdle in Paradise though isn’t the fact Royston’s reputation is in the dumps and that he’s being forced to teach public school, or that the South Bronx school itself isn’t particularly well-rated, or that he’s an atheist and she’s a devout Muslim.  It’s not even his biases of her faith or his objection toward Yasmeen’s family marrying her off as a child bride to a young man from the ‘old world’ who don’t really understand how brilliant she is.  It is in fact, Yasmeen’s own inner conflict between her desire to achieve and her religion that she loves dearly and which also binds her to certain obligations, that is the most provocative issue in this play.

In playwright Laura Maria Censabella’s west coast premiere, directed by Vicangelo Bulluck, romantic love explored through the study of science confronts a reality that Yasmeen herself can no longer eschew.  That her personal desires are a conflict to the core for a girl living in a faith that seems to demand certain familial traditions, and although free to learn, is not necessarily free to further explore her full potential.

To be fair, this is not merely a Muslim issue.  It has, time immemorial, been the conflict of women evolving inside of all faith-based cultures.  Modern understandings (not just education) also bring modern hopes, dreams, and actions of the ‘new’.  And the ‘new’ is, of course, in direct conflict with the ‘old’.  Yasmeen is smack in the middle of all she cherishes, respects and ambition, attempting to hold on to every bit.  It’s not easy.  It’s not likely.  But she is determined to find a way.

However, ‘choice’ has consequences. And for both Dr. Royston and Yasmeen, they are as extreme as they are rewarding.  The characters are culturally different as is often their consideration of them. Censabella’s writing focuses on Dr. Royston’s lack of understanding of the Muslim faith but Yasmeen’s understanding of plenty else is just as naive. And Royston can easily be perceived as the villain in the play especially where his own desire to restore his reputation through Yasmeen’s project by using his name rather than hers initially to get Yasmeen’s project recognized.  But he shifts.  Rather, Yasmeen shifts him.  Yasmeen is so ready to just do what is expected of her for tradition and obligation and even love.  But she shifts.  Royston shifts her.

In another sense, Yasmeen could be seen as her own villain, not Royston. Although his character often comes across that way. But neither is quite that.  Not really.  Despite the focus being on Yasmeen, Royston (and Marlow, most brilliantly) is the driving force of this play and just as much as Yasmeen makes a great sacrifice that once offered up, will most likely not be recovered.  And it is a sacrifice for love as much as the romantic love they are analyzing.

Paradise is important in that it attempts to address the emotional, scientific and faith-based cultural complexities and prescient topical issues of our society, through connection and personal relationships.  Something we all could probably use a little more of.

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The award-winning creative team for Paradise includes scenic and lighting designer Jeff Rowlings, sound designer Jon Gottlieb, costume designer Mylette Nora and casting director Michael Donovan, CSA. Also on board are scientific advisor Colin Cox, cultural advisor Roxi-Rabab Muthana and associate producer Nawal Bengholam. The production stage manager is Jenine MacDonald and Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners is general manager. Paradise is executive produced by Viola Davis, Julius Tennon and John Cappetta; and presented by JuVee Productions and American Oasis.

Playing at the Odyssey Theatre.

Photo (above) by Ed Krieger: Jeff Marlow and Medalion Rahimi

Copyright © 2019 Tracey Paleo – Gia On The Move

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