Andrew Aghapour: Zara 

Thursday, Mar. 28, 7 p.m., $15

PSI Theatre, Durham

When he admits to being agnostic, Andrew Aghapour is up-front that it’s no fun at all. 

“On the dinner menu of religious beliefs, agnosticism is the baked tilapia,” he says. “No one’s excited to order it; it’s just there in case you’re allergic to everything else.” Noting that his sister was fine being raised in a house with two religions—Islam from his father, who was forced to flee Iran after the fall of the Shah in the 1970s, and Christianity from his British mom—Aghapour describes his difficulties growing up with that mix: “Game of Thrones is too complicated for me, and the Bible has even more characters,” he says.

All jokes aside, Zara—his new one-person show, with direction and production by Mettlesome’s Ashley Melzer and The Monti’s Jeff Polish—is a canny, candid, and funny first-person account of Aghapour’s childhood and coming of age, caught between ethnic, racial, religious, and cultural worlds as a first-generation American growing up in the South during the nineties. Aghapour’s adroit threading of these disparate influences led UNC’s American Studies department to fund a residency and performances with the Humanities for the Public Good Initiative. After opening at Durham’s PSI Theatre on Thursday, the show has two free performances, one at UNC’s Moeser Auditorium on April 2 and the other at the Chapel Hill Public Library on the first of May.

“Religion scholar” and “comedian” rarely show up on the same résumé. But in Zara, Aghapour utilizes both the understanding that earned him a Ph.D. in religious studies and the comic chops that have placed him on stages with pros like Maria Bamford and Emo Philips.

“There are two ways to deal with an overabundance of truth,” Aghapour says of dealing with conflicting cultures and faiths. “One is to try to collapse it and make it more simple. We often do that with labeling, with our identities, and the way we collapse the complexity of other people. We do that with our politics; we simplify in ways that can make our lives easier but also make the world a worse place.” 

The other path, which Aghapour discovered during adolescence and explores in Zara, involves recognizing and embracing multiplicity and nuance. 

“It’s the path of recognizing that all of us, are many, many things,” he says. “All of us exist within multiverses. All of us step between the different worlds of home, life, and community and find ourselves tasked with making sense of ourselves as we exist in these many, many spaces.”  

Aghapour says that it took time to become comfortable with being biracial and identifying as culturally Muslim, but not religiously so. 

“When I was younger, I thought that I should somehow collapse myself into just one category,” he says. “Zara is about the process of discovering that I had the freedom, if not the responsibility, to create myself beyond those boundaries.” 

Aghapour’s broad-ranging narratives recall the work of Spalding Gray, in comic and cautionary accounts of the vicissitudes of grade school gym class, his dalliances as a stoner, and his relationship with a homeless person in Charleston. Throughout it all, there’s the evolving awareness and compassion of a compulsive overthinker growing up in a strange land.

Aghapour credits Melzer, his director, for helping the work take shape over the last year. 

“I brought the marble, she brought the chisel,” he says. Their ultimate goal was to tell an authentic story, avoiding the temptation to oversimplify that can arise when making narratives on walking between different worlds.  

Zara is about the struggle, but ultimately, the joy that comes with discovering who you are,” Aghapour says. “Even though it’s about growing up as an anxious, asthmatic brown kid in the American South, it’s also about loving life so much that you’d choose even the hard parts. You’d relive them again and again.”