Dressed in head-to-toe hot pink, Fatuma Adar bursts on stage at the Tarragon Theatre, confidently greeting the audience while rapping about being the main character. And then she flops onto the couch behind her. Doubt, fear and exhaustion set in, as the voice of her wide-eyed, optimistic, five-year-old self haunts her. What if she’s not that special?
She’s Not Special is Fatuma Adar’s one-woman musical-comedy performance about the pressures of creating as an intersectional, marginalized artist. As a Black Muslim woman, what she describes as a triple threat, Adar has felt all kinds of pressure and anxiety to represent the different facets of her identity. This show is what happened when she let go of those expectations.
“What would you write and complain about if you weren’t worried about how you would come off as a representative of all your intersections?” Adar says. “That’s all I wanted, that freedom to create.”
It was in 2019 when Adar first tested out the material for She’s Not Special, during an open night at Bad Dog Theatre. With her lyrics in one hand and a Red Bull in the other, she was determined to put herself out there and quiet the voice in her head that was demanding perfection. Adar says that a huge part of the process was not allowing herself to get too anxious about sending the perfect message.
“The idea that I had to speak on behalf of so many people was overwhelming,” Adar tells me. “I gave myself the opportunity to write a bunch of things without feeling like I have to respond to this kind of pressure…songs in response to why I don’t feel like I’m prepared to be that all-knowing wisdom when it comes to inclusion, and how to speak on behalf of the Black identity, the Muslim identity, the woman identity.”
After a digital run at the Next Stage Theatre Festival last year, Adar is performing She’s Not Special live at Tarragon Theatre, from May 24-28. With a mix of standup comedy bits, catchy and cleverly crafted songs, pre-filmed sketches, and a live band, She’s Not Special is a show with both energy and depth, touching on so many complex issues about identity and being an artist, and keeps the audience laughing the entire time.
“Black excellence is praise for winning a race that we all know is crooked to begin with,” Adar says on stage. “I shouldn’t have to be excellent. I should be given the same praise as a 19-year-old white girl dancing to Megan Thee Stallion on TikTok. AKA, I should be praised for doing the bare minimum.”
The pressures and expectations Adar has felt as a marginalized artist come from several angles. One song in the show features an artistic director character telling Adar to write about her trauma in order to get recognized. As the daughter of immigrants, there’s familial expectations to succeed and carry on a legacy, something she touched on in her Dora-award-winning musical Dixon Road (which she now also feels pressure to follow up on).
“When we tell marginalized people hey, we’re finally giving you a chance, show up and be perfect, we’re not giving them an actual opportunity to develop as artists,” says Adar. “So I really want room for failure. I want room to mess up and figure things out. That’s how I can actually get better. Not this panic that if I don’t show up perfectly then I’ll never get the chance again, or I’ve let down a whole community. That’s a lot on one person.”
Amidst all these pressures, all the noise, how do you hear your own voice as an artist? How do you get people to care about your work for what it is, not for the diversity boxes it checks? Adar tells me that figuring out her style as an artist was a really illuminating part of creating She’s Not Special. When she was able to put aside this enveloping pressure she was feeling, the songs that poured out of her were so authentic, so uniquely from her vantage point, an expression of her creativity not influenced by what the world expects of her.
The result was a sharp, witty, satirical show about celebrating your mediocrity, escaping the pressures of exceptionalism, and allowing yourself the chance to create freely. She’s Not Special has the comedic introspection and whimsical variety of a Bo Burnham show, the authentic and vulnerable storytelling of Issa Rae in Insecure, grounded by strong musical chops and Adar’s unique flair and stage presence.
“As a creator, often you’re a Black creator, you’re a Muslim creator, you’re a woman creator, which are all things that are true and will always be a part of my work. But with those labels, it was also hard to figure out what my particular voice is. Because Blackness is not one thing, being a woman is not one thing, being Muslim is not one thing. I was able to give myself some time to just figure out what I wanted to say, and I’m very grateful for that.”