“BABA is a funny love story of an American daughter as her Egyptian father. As she embodies his last crucial moments in the U.S. waiting for a passport she realizes through being in his shoes (literally) why kidnapping his child is the only solution left.” (taken from the show page on the Fringe website)
In Denmo Ibrahim’s one-woman, semi-autobiographical show, she portrays her own father, Mohammed Ibrahim, on the day when, following her parents’ divorce, he kidnaps her from her mother with the intent of taking her back to his native Egypt. Ibrahim enters as Layla, uncostumed, traveling cases in hand, to the tune of “Walk Like an Egyptian, ” and dresses onstage—fat suit and all, thus transforming into her father. Baba then begins a one-sided dialogue with the people at the airport who are processing his paperwork to take his daughter out of the country. The story unfolds from Baba’s side through “conversation,” asides, the use of negative space, and one very awkward rap number.
People have been calling this a drag show, but that depiction obscures the multi-layered complexity of identity it involves. Ibrahim, the writer and performer, plays Layla—a character partly based on herself, and partly, like Baba, a composite of many immigrants she interviewed while developing this show. Layla, in turn, plays her own father, Baba, with whom she shares DNA, culture, language, and in a sense, destiny.
This was the first Fringe show I saw this year that put me in mind of my own advice: have patience and wait, for all will be revealed before the final curtain (even though “curtain” is a rather relative term in the Fringe). When Ibrahim emerged from backstage as Layla, wearing a floor-length but comfy-looking black dress, with fire-engine-red highlights in her long black hair, I was instantly drawn to her ebullient, slightly rebellious persona. Near the end of “Walk Like an Egyptian,” when I could see that she was nowhere near ready, I began feeling a bit impatient for something to happen. Toward the end of the second song, “Who Can It Be Now,” as Layla gradually diminished and Baba began to appear (indicated by a change of posture, facial expressions, and stiffness of movement), my impatience began a similar transformation into irritation. By the time the transformation was complete, and Baba was standing in line at the airport, jingling the change in his pocket, my irritation had become full-blown frustration, which I vented onto my note pad. By that time I realized what an ingenious setup Ibrahim had utilized: she created a thoroughly unappealing character and engendered empathy for him in the process…all without saying a word.
At last, almost twenty minutes in, Baba finally begins to speak, and when he does, we are led through layer upon layer of complex emotion. We see Baba the long-suffering immigrant, subjected to the machinations of a soulless bureaucracy; Baba the long-suffering husband, whose wife has “too many friends” in this new country and no longer waits on him the way she used to; Baba the doting father and storyteller, who gives his daughter a “magic pen” that will make anything she draws come to life; and Baba the manipulator, who gets everything he wants in life (from his job at the World Trade Center to his “ideal” marriage and family) through flattery and deceit. His easygoing, obsequious demeanor is a mask for an unquestioned belief that he is smarter than everyone around him, and for a deep hostility toward anything that thwarts his quest for the perfect job, family, and life. “This place does something to you,” says Layla, in one of a few momentary, deliberate breaks in character. We are left with a lingering sense of doubt as to whether or not Baba would have been different, and if his family members’ lives would have been different, if he and his wife had stayed in Egypt, surrounded by family and community, in a place where the rules of the game would always be clear. No one will ever know.
I found this show moving beyond what words can express. There isn’t a thing I’d change about it—and telling this story in any other way would do it a great injustice. Its form is exactly what it must be.
For better or worse, the people we love take up an enormous share of our mental resources. When they do things we don’t understand, and even when they hurt us, we often spend a great deal of time trying to see things from their perspective. We want to believe that they act out of love, but we also know that people’s motives are often complex. Understanding can give us the power to forgive and move on. But it’s never that simple.
“Writers are liars,” says Erasmus Fry, a character in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. But some “lies” are more truthful than the truth. If Ibrahim had merely told the facts of the story, we would have seen Baba as a terrible father—perhaps even evil. But in her rendition of Baba in his own words, even though it is difficult not to see him as a small and selfish man, we also see him as a loving father. This complex, layered storytelling not only shows us the complicated truth of Baba—it also exposes the subtle tricks and manipulations all the greatest storytellers use to fabricate reality. And in showing us how to see the truth behind the exaggeration, she sets all of us, including herself, free.