Plays / Reviews / Theatre

Unholy unpacks being a contemporary woman in organized religion

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Written by: Diana Flacks

Directed by: Kelly Thornton

Produced by: Nightwood Theatre

Shown at: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

In rapid-fire debate with complex and heart-wrenching backstories, Unholy addresses every inner conflict any woman has when considering her place in religion.

Unholy is written in a talk show-style where the audience gets to vote throughout the debate on which side they agree with. Four women from drastically different religious backgrounds face off on the  question, “Should women abandon religion?”

On the “no” side is Yehudit Kalb, a Rabba and Maryam Hashemi, a progressive Muslim lawyer. On the “yes” side a lesbian atheist, Liz Feldman-Grant, and an ex-communicated nun: Margaret Donohue.

Liz, played by Flacks, gives a forceful performance. As the women grapple over issues like the right to wear a niqab, Liz is more aggressive in her approach than the others –  determined to prove that organized religion is an unnecessary evil. Maryam, played by Bahareh Yaraghi, is her fiercest opponent. The two face off in a heart versus head battle.

This rivalry carries out of the debate and into their personal lives.  The audience gets a glimpse into Maryam and Liz’s tumultuous relationship outside of the debate, making their moments of intense disagreement during the debate even more complex and heated.

These moments provided the background context needed to understand each woman’s position. The audience sees Margaret, played by Barbara Gordon, in her past struggling with the ethics of her role as a nun. Yehudit, played by Niki Landau, takes us back to her sister’s wedding and her own internal debate there.

Unholy isn’t afraid to touch on sensitive subjects. Every time the subject material moves into the uglier territories of bigotry informed by both religion and secularism, at least one of the women reigns everyone back in.

Liz’s character appears deeply reflective of Flacks’ own experience turning from Judaism to atheism. Flacks researched each position and religion extensively before putting this performance together. It is this base of human experience that makes each performance so compelling. Yehudit and Maryam, women who have worked so hard in their own faiths to encourage and inspire progression, tug on your heartstrings. Liz and Margaret do the same as women who have seen the worst of religion and the damage it can do.

Flacks explained in the Q & A afterwards, love, what she describes as “a great counterpoint to the damage religion and god causes,” is what lurks behind each woman’s experience and perspective. Unholy does a thorough job of unpacking the difficulty facing women involved with inherently misogynistic religions. When the host, played by Blair Williams, asks you to choose a side at the end of the play, you might’ve been surprised by your answer.

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