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Eh Dah?
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 24, 2016

Aya Aziz
Photo by Shivani Badgi

"Outsider in our midst" stories can be excellent fodder for musicals—The King and I, The Music Man, and on and on—but that theme alone does not make an ordinary play sing. Eh Dah? Questions for My Father, despite embracing that interloper idea in its purest 2016 form, containing the better part of a dozen songs, and being presented at the June Havoc Theatre as part of this year's New York Musical Festival, doesn't sing at all, and, in fact, often appears embarrassed by the prospect.

That this ends up hurting the show more than helping it is unfortunate, because writer and sole performer, Aya Aziz, has crafted something probing, intensely personal, and even important: a chronicle about what it's like to be forever caught between two (literally and figuratively) warring societies. As the piece's narrator describes herself, she was born to an Egyptian father and an American mother, and thus is never entirely sure whether she belongs in the Arab or the Western world—and as she attempts to "break in" to both, considers the distinct possibility that she belongs fully in neither.

Her feelings are inspired (or, perhaps more appropriately, brought to the surface) by the death of her uncle, who upon her first trip to Egypt at age 6, encouraged her father to show her the country Dad wanted to obscure from her view. If that kindled her interest in bridging the cultural divide, it's rather a unique one, as her father wanted her to assimilate fully ("I came here with the decision to be a part of a different society") and other members of her family, such as her aunt Hadia, want her to keep the old ways and the old land firmly in her sight ("I am Egyptian and I am proud to be Egyptian," Hadia says from her home in Philadelphia).

The narrator's inclinations toward theatre slowly but surely isolate her from stricter Arab society as she's exposed to ideas, lifestyles, and sexual orientations that run counter to its ideals. So when she attends a Muslim camp at age 11 and sees how things are "supposed to" be, she's at once intrigued and severely alienated from the people and background she doesn't know at all. (The work's title translates to "what's this?" a question the narrator asks frequently as she encounters each new aspect of Muslim life.) And this is a condition that, though it can be treated, cannot be easily healed.

Aziz's impressions of more than a dozen members of the narrator's immediate and extended family and close circle of friends are rarely emphatic or sharp—more about simple postures than thorough characterizations—but are always committed and loving. She modulates, with considerable care and sympathy, between the squabbling factions trying to define her before she's able to define herself; Aziz and her director, Corinne Proctor, ensure that both sides of the argument are convincing and frequently moving. And she does not give short shrift to anyone's psychology: By the time the show's 95 minutes are up, you will have an intimate, unapologetic understanding of what drives everyone's opinion, so you can come to your own conclusions.

Such complexities, alas, evaporate during the musical numbers. It's not just that Aziz is an unmemorable vocalist with iffy technique (there's a glaring disconnect between her chest voice and the wispy head voice in which usually sings), but the content of the songs is wobbly and ineffective: They tend to just restate what's already been addressed in dialogue but contribute nothing new to the narrative. They're not unattractive in their (unsurprising) blending of Arab and American styles in a sort of celestial cabaret—musical director Jieh Shawn Chang leads a band the combines keyboard, bass, ney (a type of flute), and dumbek (a goblet-shaped drum), but they're at best ornamentation, and at worst distracting from the far more intricate spoken story Aziz has to relate.

Perhaps that is itself part of the point: that the narrator is so at odds with the two societies that fashioned her that not even her creative impulses mesh the way they should? Maybe, but it doesn't play that way—like the rest of Eh Dah?, nothing about the score ever comes across as less than absolutely sincere. That speaks volumes of Aziz as an artist, and it's clear that she has a great deal to say about integration from two vantage points that, as our current political scene aptly demonstrates, have real trouble seeing eye to eye. She's woven a rich, enveloping tapestry that hints at the depths it's possible for her to explore. But she can't reach them as long as these songs are restricting her to wading in the shallows.

Eh Dah?
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