Nadia Manzoor’s Burq Off! is a compelling coming of age comedy

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Burq Off! | Nadia Manzoor | Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts | York Theatre | August 11 and 12, 2017

Nadia Manzoor used to think she was a failed Muslim. Through her story of personal discovery and cultural collision, she comes to realize that her identity has nothing to do with failure but is something that she needs to embrace and understand. Playing 21 characters with ease, Manzoor is a dynamo who was able to elicit tears of joy and sadness while keeping us thoroughly entertained.

As the child of a Pakistani immigrant family in the UK, Manzoor grew up a “cultural yoyo” as she calls it. She was teased by her brother for being a “coconut” (brown on the outside, but white on the inside), yet her friends couldn’t understand her strict parents or modest beach wear (she only owned a burkini). At one point she jokes that she’s “Englishstani.”  

Coming of age in a strict Muslimn family, Manzoor was told that someday she would make a man very happy. When her cousin comes to visit, she thinks her time has come; she’s been chosen. She hilariously recounts her efforts to seduce her cousin with her modesty. She finally has her first real date at a movie theatre only to be thoroughly embarrassed when her parents come to drag her away and her mother chastises her, saying she might get pregnant.  

A lack of sexual knowledge or talk about sex is another common theme in her family as she explains that a vagina was referred to as a “shame, shame.” Manzoor’s sexual education comes from what she sees on Dallas when she sneaks into her mother’s room and what her school friends tell her. Eventually she has her first sexual experience in college when she meets Brendan, a romantic Irishman who sweeps her off her feet.

Manzoor’s twin brother is depicted as obnoxious and spoiled when they are children, and when they grow up he joins an extremist Muslim brotherhood, promising to keep his sister in line. Throughout all of her struggles, Manzoor is able to draw out the humour and share her story in an engaging way complete with Bollywood dance interludes.

I learned a great deal about the difficulties immigrant children face in conflicting cultural contexts, and I was blown away by Manzoor’s ability to change character so smoothly. There was never any question which friend or family member she was embodying. Manzoor is brave to share so much of herself on stage, and it pays off in a big way. By the end of the whirlwind 90 minutes, she has the audience totally invested in her story.   

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