Review: American Fast at City Theatre


Visually striking from start to finish, the production of American Fast currently holding court at City Theatre introduces us to a character I have not seen previously on the stage. Protagonist Khady is a rarity not just as a star athlete who also is a Muslim woman. She also carries a chip on her shoulder so enormous, it threatens to crush not just her, but any empathy we might feel for her.

Khady is smart and funny, dedicated to winning and relentlessly arrogant, with just a small dash of underlying insecurities..Khady is, as her boyfriend Gabe aptly observes, “a classic narcissist.” 

Kareem Fahmy, the playwright of American Fast, has said he wanted to show Muslim Americans in all their humanity. The play at City Theatre, the second production in a National New Play Network rolling world premiere, succeeds in presenting four people whose actions are shaped by their faiths, families and ambitions, as well as by living in the speed-of-light Information Age. In the case of college basketball star Khady (Tara Touzie), she is a product not only of those colliding factors, but also of the win-at-all-costs demands on elite American athletes.

The cast of American Fast, from left; Terry Bell, Tara Touzie, Deena Aziz and Hilary Ward. (Image: Kristi Jan Hoover)

Khady’s talent is undeniable, while her expressed attitude toward everyone else is disdainful. Her aspirations? They are all about herself. She can see only so far as leading the Lady Panthers (H2P?) to an NCAA Championship – not because she is a team player, but because it will assuredly catapult her to the WNBA. 

There are some Bend It Like Beckham feels in American Fast, but they are fleeting. We may admire Khady’s singular focus, but if we are meant to root for her, she certainly makes it hard to do so.

All during the play, I was acutely aware of the commonality between Khady’s situation and a recent notorious moment that went viral, illustrating what can happen when the media spotlight shines on a female athlete who shows any sign of arrogance, however much it is earned. Just this year, Angel Reese of NCAA champ LSU took heat for a gesture and the kind of trash talk that you see regularly from men in her position. “Classless” was among the kinder dog-whistle criticisms she endured from online trolls.

Khady, played with unrelenting brio by Touzie, has put her all into reaching the NCAA Finals, which comes with a big problem. As the daughter of an overbearing, devout Muslim mother, Khady has to make a choice about playing at a championship level while observing the Ramadan fast – no food or water from dawn to dusk for 30 days.

Egged on by mom, and with the knowledge that renowned Muslim basketball playersKareem Abdul Jabbar and Hakeem Olajuwin, to name a couple – have played during Ramadan, Khady promises to fast.

Of the characters in American Fast, mom Suzan (Deena Aziz) is in the must untenable position. She is as unrelenting as her daughter in getting what she wants, but honestly, what hard-line coach (Hilary Ward, in a take-no-prisoners performance) would allow a helicopter parent, however well-intended, to be her star players constant companion – including on the team bus? No way. 

The scenario in American Fast that clicks with reality comes when Khady’s mother, proud that her daughter has promised to play by the rules of her faith while following her hoop dreams, splashes that fact across social media. Worldwide support and backlash bounce back immediately, reminiscent of the technological consequences in Dear Evan Hansen.

Directed by Jennifer Chang (The Devil Is a Lie playwright), American Fast presents four fully realized, complex characters in complex relationships. Helping us navigate Khady’s journey, as well as his own, is Terry Bell as Gabe. His insights run deep. Gabe is Khady’s counterpart as the star of the men’s team at their unnamed university, as well as a lapsed Muslim with a domineering mother.

It was Bell’s reflective Gabe I found myself rooting for, as he tried, time and again, to break through Khady’s seemingly impenetrable shell.

The relationship dramas played out on the Mainstage proscenium that transformed seamlessly from an arena to an apartment, or from a bar to a practice court. City’s creative team has outdone itself for this season finale. Scenic designer Britton Mauk, working with projection designers Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, lighting designer Minjoo Kim and sound designer Howard Patterson, all deserve kudos for the evocative, larger-than-life set that turns and unfolds, and reveals flashes of 21st-century communication platforms.

The play’s moments of levity include an onscreen representation of ESPN’s SportsCenter that earned a big laugh from the opening-night audience on Friday.

Khady obviously has lost much of her sense of fun, replaced by sarcasm. We learn that some of her attitude, and her mother’s, has been shaped by a family tragedy. When Khady is caught in a lie that echoes through the Worldwide Web, the consequences hit back not only at her, but everyone in her orbit. Her betrayal sparks a message spray painted on a campus building, the disappointment of young Muslim women who admired her, and, most of all, her mother’s devastation. 

As part of its NNPN rolling premiere, American Fast will later this year regroup in InterAct Theatre in Philadelphia, with a new cast and creative team. Fahmy can continue to work on the play, as he has been doing with every step in the process.

This play has strong bones and robust action, with themes as near at hand as 2023 March Madness. I could have used a few more reasons to empathize with the central figure, but it could just be that I wanted so very much to cheer on her athletic success. Instead, I spent most of my energy rooting for her to become a better human being – which have been the point, right from the starting buzzer.

2022-23 season finale “American Fast” is at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side, through May 21. Tickets and details: https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/american-fast/ or cal 412-431-2489. City’s 2023 Momentum Festival is May 18-21. https://citytheatrecompany.org/play/momentum-festival-2023/

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