By Marcina Zaccaria
From an empty stage, great ideas come to fruition. The New York Musical Festival always provides the opportunity to introduce new musicals. While some of them are packed with dancing and tuneful melodies, Eh Dah!, with Book, Music, and Lyrics by Aya Aziz, is part-performance art, part-reverie, with scenes from Egypt, combined with high energy re-enactments of relatives and friends.
With enough variation in composition, stunning arrangements, and songs constructed to impress a musicologist, Eh Dah! is delightfully refreshing. Aya portrays a number of characters, including Amo Abbas, Baba, Aya’s father, and Janine, Aya’s theater teacher. She discusses her experiences in a hippie school in Greenwich Village, a small area in West Philadelphia, and a housing facility in Chelsea, NYC. Dressed in harem pants and simple tank top, Aya reminds us that Egypt is everywhere in her soul.
While she combines jazzy vocals and monologues, she weaves a tale of a young woman searching for a homeland. Singing into a broom after a shift in a Greenwich Village bar, she has all the smooth style of a chanteuse. She chooses comedy, though, and holds the stage – an exceptional physical presence. Portraying moments with family members, she casts herself as the outsider who really makes a difference. She speaks on a wide range of issues focused on identity and the need to be recognized. In the US, Egyptians are few and far between.
In short segments directed by Corinne Proctor, Young Aya gleans encouragement from her elders. She stumbles through the process, taking surprising steps where many others would not. With her petite frame, just over five feet tall, sometimes she appears too cute; sometimes, too willful. Throughout the play, she recognizes that all of her actions are under a larger God. The early times were confusing, but in every way, create the character we see onstage.
Far from thoughtless, Eh Dah? Questions for My Father has light vignettes that are surprisingly encouraging. “Ghetto Hippie Arab Commie China Doll” has spirited lyrics that put you right in the middle of a Greenwich Village in-joke. “Words They Don’t Say” maintains a pop feel while keeping the harrowing feelings far from distant. It’s also rhythmic in a way that’s profound. “American Made” is a call to the West, created to feel like a stirring proclamation. The arrangements are some of the best heard in a while. Aya Aziz keeps in good time with Jieh Shawn Chang (Piano), Matt Chilton (Double Bass, Ney), and Geoff Thomas (Dumbek).
While some people are forever locked in a never-ending culture war, Aya Aziz has the presence and the determination to break out of it. In asking Eh Dah? or What is This?, she could teach you who she is. Instead, she reveals the source of her pain, anger, and confusion. She would rather sing than cower.
Eh Dah? ran from July 19–July 28 at The June Havoc Theater, located at 312 W 36th Street. The New York Musical Festival is running until August 7.