In this one-person show, Baba, performer and writer Alex Mahgoub takes the audience through the story of his father’s murder when Mahgoub was only ten years old. Through piecing together the splinters of this violent event, he recognizes how his perceptions of masculinity, power, and his own identity were shaped in response. In his artist statement, Mahgoub writes that he was “haunted” by this story before he wrote it, that he still finds himself sobbing on stage with genuine emotion even after performing the well-received show so many times at various theatres and festivals. Baba was voted favorite solo show and favorite performance of the Capital Fringe Festival in Washington DC by DC Metro in July 2015, and all of his performances in the New York Fringe Festival from August 15-29th were entirely sold-out. The dramatic delivery of Mahgoub’s loss of his Baba changes his life and perception of the human experience from an early age, and births the ghost which Mahgoub must still learn from throughout his teen and adult years. Watching Mahgoub’s performance does not, however, feel like an exorcism but rather like witnessing someone learning to live with that ghost.
Mahgoub’s Baba (Arabic for father), takes the role of his primary teacher. From early childhood, Baba is larger than life–a superhero. He’s the Egyptian James Dean on a motorcycle, the immigrant who came here with nothing and built himself an empire, redolent of the Cool Water cologne scent of masculinity. He’s the leather jacket and gold medallion pinnacle of manliness, and teaches his son the reality of money, hard work, and success. Because his father died in an act of bravado that perhaps could have been avoided, he sees his father undone by the same pride that made him appear so invincible. Mahgoub begins to question the authenticity of his father’s machismo and begins to define himself against it. He was going to be the nice guy. At the same time, both the pressure and inspiration of his father’s expectations for his son, what is is to be a man, linger.
This specter of masculine power hits home the complicated father-son dynamics that many children experience: striving to live up to a father’s expectations, viewing his father’s word as the ‘last word,’ and wondering how a ‘traditional man’ would act. That image of unquestionable masculine authority is eventually shattered when a child learns that the father figure is fallible. And still, Baba’s ghost follows his son throughout his decision-making and the winding path of his career. Mahgoub wonders what his Baba would think of the man he’s become, and at the same time ruminates on the loss of ever knowing. It is a loss conjured in such a way that the audience feels and can connect with, knowing it’s a loss we will one day go through, if we haven’t already.
The play weaves between the stated and understated, casting the most difficult topics to the realm of memory and flashback while the easier, more quotidian details of life are expressed primarily through expository monologue, suggesting that while there is an acute awareness and acceptance of the darkest parts of his reality, he is still processing the trauma at the root of his being. Rather than addressing his concerns about what his macho father would think of his sexuality through exposition, he takes the audience through a vivid flashback to winning a sterling silver necklace for being the top saleschild in his school’s fundraiser, and coming home wearing it with pride. His father demands that he takes it off because, “Necklaces are for faggots,” and Mahgoub casts the necklace in a river, desperate to be rid of the epithet. This memory arises later in his twenties, after his first kiss with a charming man he meets at a party, and while he does not ask himself what his father would think of his bisexuality, the audience feels his concern. In this way, the harshest aspects of his life are not intellectualized–they are presented in raw fragments of memory, resurfacing as he’s triggered in the present. The performance is in many ways a trauma narrative, fluctuating between accepting and looking away from overwhelming events and experiences through text and subtext, exposition and flashback, the bare nerves of suffering and the cloak of humor.
The balance between levity and darkness is particularly striking: alternating between the starker memories of loss and fear, and then cartoonish caricatures of his sister, mother, father, and other people in his life. And while the audience did not always laugh when the script perhaps expected us to, we had the authentic experience of watching a person reconcile tragedy through humor when he is the only one who can laugh, even through the observer’s thoughtful silence, because to go on, he must laugh. And not coincidentally, the jokes that made the audience laugh loudly preceded the most scarring recollections. But this is how we live with ghosts– the ghosts of expectation, of loss, and of a past that can only be evoked through art. By the end of the show, the audience feels that Mahgoub has struck an ever-shifting reconciliation between his father and the overbearing question of what it is for him, Alex Mahgoub, to be a man. “My father lived his life with his chest out, ready for the fight. I live my life with my heart open, ready to be the nice guy.”
– Jessica Reidy & Viktor Pachas