Senior playwright produces ‘Mona Lisa’ murder mystery, discovers passion for medium

Ryan Clark, Assistant Editor

Actors Gabriel Fries and Vinithra Raj put on a virtual performance of senior Aisha Ziad’s play “A Lady’s Façade” through the Pegasus Theatre’s Young Playwrights Festival. (from Pegasus Theatre Chicago’s 34th Young Playwrights Festival )

A mysterious code, a group of inquisitive curators, a serial killer roaming through 16th century Italy, and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” — in senior Aisha Ziad’s prize-winning play “A Lady’s Façade,” these are all connected by a thread from the present day all the way back to the Renaissance.
Aisha’s play, which she wrote in English teacher Christine Himmelfarb’s class, won first place in the Young Playwrights Festival and was performed virtually in January. Since writing her play, Aisha has become interested in theater and hopes to pursue acting in college.
“I didn’t expect anything to come out of it. I was just doing it for the heck of it,” she said. “I didn’t expect to win, but that was a bonus obviously.”
The Young Playwrights Festival is an annual, citywide playwriting competition for teenagers that the Pegasus Theatre hosts. As a part of the prize, the Pegasus Theatre used its resources and actors to virtually produce the play.
Her play alternates between a group of contemporary curators who find and decipher a code hidden in the “Mona Lisa” and a murder spree that Leonardo da Vinci becomes entangled with.
According to Ms. Himmelfarb, Aisha’s successful juxtaposition of two different settings and sets of characters added an additional level of richness and complexity most shorter plays lack.
“That’s a lot to write,” Ms. Himmelfarb said. “She was in that way a more creative and gutsy playwright.”
At the beginning of the playwriting process, the class was given a series of prompts. Aisha was intrigued by one of them, to make a play about a historical event, and she soon became interested in the idea of writing a play about the “Mona Lisa” after she expanded her ideas in class workshops.
“I always liked the Mona Lisa painting, and I was like ‘Well, what if there was a mystery behind it?’” Aisha said.
Later, students read individual scenes to each other in groups and provided feedback. Aisha took special care in revising her play in multiple rounds of edits.
“Aisha was unique in that after she had her full draft, she was really one of the students that stood out to me for doing a lot of revision,” Ms. Himmelfarb said. “Looking at her draft in her Google Doc, I could see that she had gone in a couple times a day across several days.”
This intensive revision proved fruitful when Aisha won the competition and had her play produced with actors from Pegasus Theatre. Even though it was entirely virtual, Aisha participated in casting and the virtual production.
“I didn’t expect it to come together that well, but it seriously looked so good,” Aisha said. “It honestly was really nice and cool to watch it come to life like that.”
Although the actors were all separated, they coordinated backdrops and props, including a complete set of art materials for da Vinci.
Aisha writes in her free time, and though she participated in a poetry extracurricular in elementary school, this is the first play she has ever written.
Aisha first acted in high school when she joined the Student Experimental Theater but was unable to continue because of long commutes to school for auditions. Since writing “A Lady’s Façade” and participating in its production, Aisha’s interest in plays has grown, and she hopes to act in college.
“I just tried it out, and I liked the feel, so I want to try to get into it more to see if it’s something I want to take seriously in the future,” she said.
Aisha also has a word of advice for other playwrights.
“Don’t feel too much pressure to win, and just write purely out of enjoyment what you think sounds good,” Aisha said. “Don’t try to write a play based off what other people write. Stick true to your passions.”