The Mecca Tales

by Brooke Pierce

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 24, 2017

Gulshan Mia
Gulshan Mia  

In America, Islam and its rituals are often portrayed as exotic and mysterious, sometimes tinged with an element of suspicion. A pilgrimage to Mecca might be imagined to be an intense spiritual feat attempted by only the most zealous believers (cue generic "Middle Eastern" music). "The Mecca Tales" immediately dispels all that by opening with a group of kvetching, hijab-wearing ladies in white, just dumped off a tour bus and carrying their commemorative "Hajj 2017" travel bags. They could be any group of weary ladies at Disney World, complaining about the heat and wondering when they can head back to the hotel.

Written by Rohina Malik, and presented jointly by the Voyage Theater Company and Crossroads Theatre Company, "The Mecca Tales" follows five women who are making the journey to Mecca (known as the Hajj) as a part of a tour group. Islam is, of course, a global religion, and that diversity is represented in these women. There's the tour guide Grace, a black American who converted many years ago; Bina, a demanding Pakistani woman who is eager to get to her air-conditioned tent; Maya, a refugee who has lost almost everyone she loves; Alma, an Argentinian mother wracked with guilt; and Malika, a bright young medical student who feels the burden of her father's expectations.

As they make a series of important stops on the pilgrimage, Grace -- who has been leading Hajj tours for ten years -- tries to lend some of her wisdom and experience to the other women in their worship. When she attempts to get everyone to open up about their reasons for doing the Hajj, many of the ladies are reluctant to share their motives. Eventually, each woman starts to open up, and in flashback, we get glimpses of the pressures, traumas, fears, and frustrations that have helped bring them here. They are seeking forgiveness, guidance, or answers yet unknown as they deal with deep pain, disappointments with children and spouses, lost loved ones, and uncertain futures.

With "The Mecca Tales," playwright Malik successfully makes the pilgrimage more relatable on a basic level by showing us the touristy elements of it at the very beginning. But once she has dispelled any superficial aura of holiness that surrounds the event, she is then able to dig in and explore its real power in helping people confront demons and heal wounds. Sure, the women complain about the heat and dust and sub-par food, but this is the reality for all spiritual travelers who struggle to do the deep, meaningful work of personal redemption while still being imperfectly human.

The production is fortunate to have an excellent cast. Cynthia Bastidas (Alma), Mariam Habib (Maya), and Jade Radford (Malika) are all instantly likable as their characters, who are kind but complicated women. Kimberly S. Fairbanks plays Grace as one of those confident, highly competent women who seem to have it all together -- until the cracks begin to show.

Gulshan Mia helps us sympathize with Bina, who is funny but downright mean at times. And special mention has to go to the versatile Louis Sallan, who plays Grace's amiable but put-upon assistant Reza, plus every other male character in these women's lives. The whole group has a great chemistry that makes them enjoyable to watch together onstage.

For a touching, humorous look at a transformative religious journey, as seen through the eyes of women, make your pilgrimage to the Sheen Center (don't worry, it's air-conditioned) to see "The Mecca Tales."

"The Mecca Tales" runs through November 4 at the Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker Street, NYC. For information and tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit

Brooke Pierce is a freelance writer and playwright in New York City. Her plays have received staged readings at the American Theatre of Actors, the Ensemble Studio Theatre, and Stage One Theater. Brooke is a member of the Drama Desk and the Dramatists Guild.