9 parts of desire

I managed to catch this play at the Berkeley Rep last night. It’s a one-woman show by Heather Raffo, this time performed by Mozhan marn;ograve;. The play tells 9 Iraqi women’s stories, from an Iraqi-American obsessively watching the news for images of her extended family to a woman selling scavenged goods on the street, from an artist who painted Saddam’s portrait and is now asked to make a mosaic of Bush’s face on the floor of a hotel to the lone survivor of a bomb shelter that was mistakenly bombed by the Americans, vaporizing the bodies of those within.

The play’s most powerful device, used again and again without seeming old, is the simple statement of an atrocity. It is a kind of alienation that Brechtian manipulation can never accomplish. Hooda, an older expat living in London, is a pacifist who is for the war because Saddam ruined her country and “this war it was personal.” She tells us of her time in prison before fleeing Iraq. “They get to you by torturing those around you,” she tells us, and describes how a man was forced to listen to a tape of his wife being raped while their 3-month-old baby was placed in a bag with hungry cats. Layal, the artist, describes how her friend was taken by Uday, stripped naked, covered in honey, and fed to his dogs. This is what their lives are like, and in that matter-of-fact tone we are made to understand that we cannot possibly know what it is like to experience that.

The only moments that didn’t really work for me were at the end, where I felt like the sound levels were such that I couldn’t make out the text, and the moment where Layal smashes her supplies. In the latter, the transition is so abrupt that I couldn’t really make out why she snapped then. In the former, I was mostly disappointed because that is the moment in which everything is tied together before the denouement. All of the lines from the play come back through the tongue of Mulaya, the mourner. Nanna, the street seller, complains: “I have too much existence. Our history is finish.” Amal the Bedouin loves “with her heart, not with her eyes.” It’s a goldmine for drawing the piece together as a collective outcry against this existence, this injustice, and this horror that face these women, and it felt rushed and hard to decipher.

But no performance is perfect, and the positives in 9 Parts of Desire far outweigh the negatives. Marnò’s face is chameleonlike — she has a real gift for transformation, much like Sarah Jones. A program note that I read afterwards noted that the way in which a woman wears her abaya, her robe, tells us much about her class and her politics. It’s a simple signifier that allows the actress to physicalize her relationship to her politics, differentiate characters, and build a visual vocabulary, constrained by a single garment.

Unfortunately, the show closes this weekend (to make way for Culture Clash’s Zorro In Hell, which I am really excited about). But if it comes your way, definitely watch it. It changed my friend’s view of solo performance, and it may change yours.

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