As a teenager, Rohina Malik went to great lengths to hide her Muslim heritage.
CHICAGO — As a teenager, Rohina Malik went to great lengths to hide her Muslim heritage.
While some girls her age chose to wear the traditional headscarf, she opted against it. And when teachers read "Rohina" at roll call on the first day of school, she asked them to call her Mariam, her less Muslim-sounding middle name.
Unable to hide her caramel skin or overcome her shyness, the aspiring actress and playwright didn't audition for a role until her senior year at Niles North High School. She was astounded when she landed the lead.
But what was once a source of shame in her adolescent mind has grown into inspiration. After putting her craft on hold for nearly two decades, Malik's breakout one-woman show, "Unveiled," has positioned her as one of Chicago theater's rising stars, critics say.
"When I was a teen, I thought my skin color, my religion, my heritage, would prevent me from being a part of the American theater experience," said Malik, now 34 and a mother of four. "Now, young Muslims ask me the same things I used to ask myself: 'Can a Muslim be a theater artist?' I tell them ... 'Focus on your craft, and leave the rest to God.' "
As the American Muslim community faces more scrutiny — from hearings on Capitol Hill to hostile neighbors who don't want them worshipping next door — Malik draws on the confidence she gained in high school to set aside her self-consciousness to fulfill her dream.
In June, the Goodman Theatre will host a reading of her newest play, "The Mecca Tales," a script commissioned by the Goodman that examines why five Muslim women have decided to make the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca at this particular time in their lives.
In addition, her play "Unveiled," about five fictional Muslim women who find their inner strength when confronted by prejudice and pressure after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, is being translated for audiences in France, where Muslim headscarves have been banned for women working in the public sector.
"Muslims are human beings, they are like everybody else," she said. "I want my writing to show that."
Born in London, Malik moved to Skokie, Ill., and enrolled at Niles North in the middle of her freshman year. She took every variety of theater course, writing poetry and plays, but she never auditioned for an acting role until her senior year. She decided to audition for a role in a production of the 18th-century British comedy "She Stoops to Conquer" after a fellow student said the cast of the play should be all white. That comment drove her to prove him wrong. She got the lead.
"I couldn't let that statement break me," she said. "Theater is the one medium that's color blind. I got the lead. That was a sweet victory."
Drama teacher Timothy Ortmann, who invited his former student back to the Niles North stage in April, watched Malik come out of her shell in the early 1990s. He still slips and calls her Mariam and recalls the young artist's struggles with her identity.
"The magic of theater is you can really try on a lot of different masks very quickly and figure things out about yourself," he said. "You learn a lot about yourself pretending to be somebody else."
While attending Oakton Community College, Malik donned the traditional Muslim headscarf, or hijab.
Since her interest in Islam was growing, and her parents never approved of her theater aspirations anyway, she did not return to the stage and later transferred to DePaul University to major in religious studies.
She married shortly after graduation and had the first of four children in 2001. Life took another turn on Sept. 11 of that year.
She wore a hat instead of a hijab when she left the house that day. In the years that followed, she confronted a new self-consciousness about her faith. She also experienced an emptiness inside.
"In my soul, there was a void," she said. "I tried to think of the time when I was most happy in my life." She thought back to high school.
So she began to write. Inspired by her own encounters with prejudice, her first original play "Unveiled" debuted at 16th Street Theater in 2009.
Her sympathetic portrayals of five modern Muslim women have inspired invitations from synagogues, churches and mosques and apologies from audience members who after seeing the show have reconsidered preconceived notions and stereotypes. The play also has inspired rave reviews from most critics.
Tanya Palmer, director of new play development for the Goodman Theatre, said she has watched Malik and her characters evolve since "Unveiled."
"She's trying to dig a little deeper, so it's not just presenting people grappling with their identity but actually exploring that and the complexity of that," Palmer said. "That's what theater can do. It gets into how complicated it is to be human."
But creating complex characters to represent Islam, which is already widely misunderstood, can be a tricky endeavor.
"I've seen her grappling with being Muslim in a culture that is either unfamiliar with or actually actively hostile toward the Muslim faith and toward faithful Muslims," Palmer said. "There's often an evolution for people who aren't represented much on stage, or when they are represented there are negative representations. They do feel pressure to only show positive representations. ... There is an evolution, not just for Rohina but for South Asian and Middle Eastern playwrights in the U.S. in general in terms of what they see their role is."
Malik's return to her alma mater last month prompted her to dig out her high school yearbook. Its pages were covered with compliments and predictions of a career on Broadway.
"It hasn't happened yet, but it's my dream," she said.
While "Unveiled" is being prepared a stage in France, she especially wants to introduce the play to a New York audience on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. One colleague recently suggested it would be the wrong time and New Yorkers wouldn't listen.
"I think they will." she said. "I would love for my play to be part of the dialogue."