BB, Is This Who You Are?

Mar 2013

Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto

  • Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto
  • Written and performed by Anna Khaja
  • Directed by Heather de Michele
  • Produced by Women Center Stage, The Culture Project, New York City

Benazir Bhutto has always been a divisive figure, in her life and in the legacy that survives her 2007 assassination. The first female prime minister of Pakistan—of any Muslim country—is both revered and reviled by those who elected her, and is one of the few Pakistani leaders who can be considered a household name across the world. When I once told an Ethiopian taxi driver in Atlanta that I am Pakistani, he exclaimed, “Oh Benazir! That beautiful woman!” She was democratically elected not once, but twice, first in 1988 and again in 1993. She was also dismissed from office both times and eventually charged with corruption. Perhaps most famously, Benazir, known colloquially as BB, was the first modern head of state to give birth while in office. This was no ordinary politician.

Naturally, she’s been the subject of many books and documentaries, but Shaheed: The Dream and Death of Benazir Bhutto is perhaps the first time she has been represented in theatre. Performed by actress and playwright, Anna Khaja, this one-woman show attempts to provide an insight into the humanity of someone who was larger than life, but proved just as mortal as the rest of us—the kind of insight only afforded us by art. So, the moment in the show that most captured my imagination was when a character asks the question: “BB, is this who you are?”

The show consists of a series of vignettes, each presenting a different character’s perspective on BB, set in the days just before she was killed in a suicide bombing on December 27, 2007, a few months after returning to Pakistan.  The 8 distinct characters, clearly well-researched, range from a half-Pakistani American college student, to a rehri driver (a street vendor), to Daphne Barak, an Israeli journalist, to Condoleeza Rice. Khaja is a talented performer who, for the most part, slips fluidly between roles and inhabits them with ease. In particular, her rendering of Rice’s “advising” BB to return to Pakistan is instantly recognizable and chillingly effective as a storytelling device. Depicting the relationship between America and Pakistan (and specifically, democracy in Pakistan) through the conversation between these powerful women is a fascinating choice.

Generally, Khaja is adept at communicating the diversity of opinions on BB through a smart script and her emotive transformations. Shamsher, the rehri driver, is a wry, quip-ready devotee of BB who doesn’t care about her corruption charges because, he says, rishwat (bribery) is what business thrives on in Pakistan, and why would you want someone in office who doesn’t know how to do business? Khaja commands the stage as these characters, making use of an economical set design, though it could certainly have been more evocatively worked into the piece. Read on >>

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