One of the larger productions in this year’s Protoype festival was the world premiere presentation of Thumbprint, an earnest and righteous account of the first Pakistani woman to prevail in a court of law against a group of tribal elders responsible for her “honor rape“. It’s the sort of subject matter that dares you to say anything bad about it. How can one object to the story of a powerless, illiterate woman bravely overcoming all odds and prejudices to find a justice that is almost unheard of in that part of the world? What are you? Some kind of woman-hating rape-supporter? Gulp…
The work starts out strongly with a bustling scene lifted from the middle of the opera (a structural conceit that seems likely to have been made fairly late in the game). An international press corps is strafing an overwhelmed woman with questions about her life, her story, and her strength. The music is exciting, melding instruments, sonorities, and modes from western and eastern traditions, a sort of exotic minimalism. It is exceedingly pleasant to listen to. After this brief non-linear prologue, we settle into the real beginning of the story, an idyllic scene at home with our protagonist Mukhtar (beautifully sung and sensitively portrayed by the work’s composer, Kamala Sankaram) and her mother and sister (the also excellent Theodora Hanslowe and Leela Subramaniam). It’s a charming scene, filled with likable people enjoying the simple pleasures of family and love and weaving. This pastoral setting is interrupted by a pair of powerful elders who have accused the young son in the family of having physical contact with a girl from another tribe. To atone for this crime, they must send one of their own women to a tribunal. Ever brave, ever noble, Mukhtar volunteers herself to plead for her brother’s release.
There is somehow a compelling forward momentum in these early scenes, despite the fact that we know exactly what’s going to happen. This remains true through the sensitive and powerful staging of the rape scene, the dramatic and artistic high point of the evening. However, the remaining 40 minutes of the opera seems overlong and somehow both inevitable and arbitrary. We know Mukhtar is going to ultimately prevail against her assailants, but we’re not given any insight into WHY she prevails. We’re told over and over again that no one will listen to a woman, and a disgraced one at that, but suddenly a judge seems to be sympathetic to her situation. Who was this judge? Why did he break with precedent? How did her case even get to court? What role did western influence and pressure play? Exploring these questions would have taken more stage time, but in the absence of such exploration, much of the last half of the opera seemed repititious. The climactic trial itself was mostly just a restating of things that we already knew.
The production was imaginatively staged, making good use of a minimalist set consisting primarily of three versatile cots creating various spaces over the stage. The projections, however, seemed under baked and over literal. I don’t think I need to see video of slow motion smoke ever again, whether projected in an opera, a nightclub, or a warehouse rave. Similarly, I could have done without a giant thumbprint hovering over several stretches of time. The performances themselves were uneven, vocally and dramatically. The women were all significantly stronger than the men, with Manu Narayan standing out as the most consistently malevolent of the bunch.
This is a theater of certainty, of absolutes, of archetypes in place of humans, of conclusions already made. The good characters are all good all the time. The bad characters are all bad all the time. There is no room for moral ambiguity, no space for an idyllic family scene where a tribal patriarch comes home and acts as a loving and supportive father to his daughters hours after participating in a gang rape of someone else’s daughters. Nor was there any space to reflect upon the death sentence given to the accused. Does Mukhtar wish them dead? Would it change the way we feel about her if she does? These are questions about humanity that are unexplored. Instead we learn that she uses her newfound confidence to build a school for other victimized women. This is a noble and heartwarming conclusion, to be sure, but at the risk of being called a woman-hating rape supporter, this reviewer would prefer a smidge less Oprah in his opera.