"Noor Inayat Khan: The Forgotten Spy" tells the true story of a renowned British spy of Indian heritage who served as a wireless operator in World War Two. This solo show, written and performed by Almanya Narula, explores the conflict inherent in a spy serving her people's colonizers and participating in a war effort as a pacifist. The lasting impact of this strong pioneer's sacrifice is uplifted through this powerful performance.
The show takes place in an interrogation room after Noor Inayat Khan is betrayed and turned in to the Nazis. Khan is given a letter to sign stating she will make no more attempts to evade the Nazis. Khan refuses to sign the letter and fights her captors until the end. While speaking to her captors, the story of Khan's choice to volunteer for the Allied forces and recruitment by the Special Operations Executive comes together piece by piece. Khan was the first woman deployed as a wireless operator in occupied territory. She says that while she didn't love collaborating with her colonizers and believed in non-violence, becoming a spy gave her purpose. She didn't want to sit around and watch injustices being performed; she wanted to fight actively to save innocent lives. She stands by her principals till the very end, refusing to sign the letter and thus is taken to the Dachau concentration camp and executed. Her last words are "Liberte".
Narula's writing paints Khan as confident and even sassy towards her enemies. It gives her a very sharp tongue and cheek tone. She makes jokes even in the face of imminent danger and harm. Narula's portrayal of Khan, both in the writing and performance, brings her to life as an extremely likable character. Not only does she say whatever is on her mind no matter what, she sticks to her morals and fights for what is right to her death bed. Narula's script utilizes a metaphor of a monkey king who sacrifices himself to protect his fellow monkeys against an evil king who attacks them for their mangos. This fable is woven throughout the narrative and in the end Khan makes the connection saying, "I am the monkey king. And I am free." The text tells many stories at once: that of Khan's espionage leading up to her capture, her current struggle in imprisonment and that of the monkeys. These narratives inform each other and are easy to follow. Even in the moments of interjection from the outside captors, what is taking place is obvious. For example, at times, Khan is grabbed and pulled violently, but Narula manages to show this physical abuse perpetrated upon her without the perpetrator present using just her acting.
Moreover, Narula's acting is powerful and believable throughout. She has a hard job portraying the end of this historical figure's life. Her portrayal is a beautiful tribute to the importance of people like Khan throughout history; people who sacrificed themselves for the greater good yet have faded into obscurity over time. I am sure I am not alone in a lack of knowledge of Khan's life and work prior to this show. After experiencing the show, this story is one that is sure to stick with audiences because of the talent shown in Narula's storytelling.
My only critique of the show is the length. The show is relatively short (a bit over a half hour) and packs a lot of story and information in a small amount of time. Expanding the material would give the audience a longer time to sit with the narrative and Khan to fully understand her backstory and current circumstances. A longer run time would also create an opportunity for more tension, creating a bigger payoff in the ending. Perhaps more of Khan's life could have been explored as well, including more details of her time as a spy and the events leading up to it. Overall, it was a very large concept and story to fit into a very small show.
This show feels important in learning about history and its implications on the future. Acting as both educational and entertaining, "Noor Inayat Khan: The Forgotten Spy" highlights a revolutionary woman of color who saved lives and helped pave the way for those who came after.
"Noor Inayat Khan: The Forgotten Spy"
Written and Performed by Almanya Narula
Co-Produced by Nazia Chandiwalla
November 9, 2023
The 15th United Solo Festival
September 25- November 19, 2023
410 West 42nd (btw 9th and 10th Avenue)
Carmen! is a trans-multimedia artist specializing in playwriting, acting and crochet. Originally from Jacksonville Beach, Florida, they are currently based in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, returning to their Atlantic Oceanic roots. Their play Taking the Plunge has been performed at the Tank and the Chain off-Broadway and in the 2023 Fresh Fruit Festival slated this June. Carmen has also worked in front-of-house and technical positions for prominent theater organizations including New Dramatists, Portland Playhouse, Emursive and Future Proof. Carmen’s mission is to use play to create meaningful representation by and for underrepresented communities. For more information on Carmen! Follow them on socials @carmenacetosociety or check out www.carmenburbridge.info