In Kareem Fahmy’s new play American Fast, the protagonist, Khady (Tara Touzie), is a college basketball star in her senior year who is hoping to lead her team to a March Madness championship victory. She’s also a non-religious Muslim who has spent much of her life appeasing her devout mother by seeming to be observant of religious customs and obligations. The play’s dilemma crops up around the obligation to fast for Ramadan, which also coincides with the month of the championship basketball tournament. Khady plans to do as she has in the past – not actually fast while letting her mother think she is doing so – but those plans are derailed by her coach – who whips up a lot of PR around Khady’s status as a first female Muslim basketball star – and her mother – who unexpectedly comes to town to help her manage fasting while playing the tournament. Khady finds herself suddenly obligated not only to observe a religious ritual she doesn’t fully believe in, but also – through the magic of social media – to stand as a model representative and symbol for young Muslim women around the world.
You know from the beginning that this will not go well, mainly because the play starts with its four characters – Khady, her mother Suzan (Deena Aziz), her Coach (Hilary Ward), and her boyfriend Gabe (Terry Bell) – trying to help her get back in the good graces of an unseen “provost” sitting in the audience who wants to remove Khady from the team because someone has graffitied “Khady Salama doesn’t believe in anything” on the side of the university’s brand-new multi-million dollar athletic facility. The action then jumps back in time to tell us what happened to put Khady into that pressure-cooker of a mess, most of which stems from a toxic combination of Khady’s driving ambition to be number one on the court and her fear of disappointing anyone, especially her mother. Those two character traits lead her to lie and keep secrets until her lies and secrets blow up her life.
Note that I said the action jumps back in time to tell (rather than show) us what happened. Fahmy is better at writing soliloquies than believable dialogue, and he plays to his strengths by having a good deal of the story delivered as direct-address monologues. I don’t know if the script also calls for the actors to repeatedly stand still downstage in spotlights while they talk to us, but the overall effect of director Jennifer Chang’s rather static staging is that it begs the question of why the script needs much more than a staged reading, other than to showcase Britton Mauk’s unexpectedly flexible set and Kaitlyn Pietras’s illuminating projection design.
I suspect this is a play that will land differently for viewers depending on their own relationship to religious identity and religiosity. Some may be most interested in its exploration of how the acceptance or rejection of religion can divide children from parents; others may be more drawn to its sensitive depiction of the various forms Muslim identity can take. The play was most compelling to me in the moments when it focused on how Khady comes to be seduced (or maybe a better word is pressured) into believing herself to be a Muslim role model, and then allows that to feed her already overly-large ego and ambitions. The god of social media leads her to lose sight of who she really is and what she really cares about, and it’s when she starts lying to herself that she fully loses her way.