9 parts of desire, part 2

Upon rereading, my review of 9 Parts of Desire may have been a little too positive. There are definitely problems with the play, especially in its relationship to its intended audience. I was initially impressed by what the play managed to do correctly and the versatility of the actress, but then the lacunae became more apparent.

Firstly, class is only tangentially dealt with in the play. Yes some of the 9 women are poor, but in Raffo’s scramble to give them strength and agency, she didn’t really address the relationship between them — which women enable the oppression of the others? What are the political forces that are relevant to them? It’s set up as a Baathist/Saddam versus American/Bush conflict, but that is a gross oversimplification, as the news points out. We’re given 9 snapshots of women but only the finest of threads stitching together their relationships to each other.

This is further complicated by the choice of these 9 snapshots. As I tried to argue with an acquaintance last night, someone will take issue with any finite number of images you take as “representative” of the spectrum of Iraqi women. Her complaint was that the choices were stereotypical — drunken expatriate, politically opportunistic artist, helpless 2nd generation immgrant. I think the more accurate criticism is that there weren’t very many complicated images, contradictions that couldn’t be fully explained by the text. To a degree, the women were textbook-logical. Even an irrationall impulse could be explained. It comes off a little pat, and thus non-representative.

Finally, there is the issue of catharsis. This play is playing in wealthy leftist Berkeley, and there is a real danger (and I’m sure it happened to many people) they they will go to see this play and feel like they have experienced the pain of these women and can now be cleansed of their guilt from complicity/ignorance/etc. I heard some paper called it an uplifting theatrical event, a feel-good play. It should have been more disturbing or challenging to avoid that. But you can’t control an audience’s reception that finely.

Was it worth seeing? I still think so. It’s standard practice to dislike all theater on some grounds, but my general feelings are positive, albeit shot through with some concerns. It’s too bad it closes today so nobody else gets to see it. But onward and upward, as they say.


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.

and then there were two

This morning I saw two of the three characters that often haunt the North Side. Allison wasn’t around yet, but the Conversationalist was having a conversation with himself about the Berkeley Daily Planet, or maybe it was a conversation with the Berkeley Daily Planet. It’s kind of hard to tell with him. The nice thing is that the one side of his conversations are way more interesting than any overheard cellphone call.

Outside Soda Hall, however, I saw three cops arresting Angry Man — he was handcuffed and being pushed towards one of the three cop cars that the UC Police decided were necessary for apprehending him. The campus police here take their role as The Man quite seriously here, so I wasn’t entirely surprised, but even to me it seemed a bit excessive. Angry Man was pretty passive the whole time, although he wasn’t willing to walk to the car and had to be dragged. The whole thing was a little surreal to me, considering my lack of sleep. I wonder how long it will be before he comes back.


The heat is off in my building to save money during break, which makes it a little difficult to type and work. I’m reminded by my piano teacher‘s story of buying fingerless gloves to practice in unheated practice rooms. Berkeley’s attitude towards cutting costs and saving money remind me of a scaled-up version of household economizing. While it’s effective keeping expenses down at home, I’m surprised that cutting corners like this saves as much on the institutional level.

In other news, apparently we use loud mixtapes of Lil’ Kim, RATM, and Eminem to shake up prisoners at Guantanamo before interrogating them. I’m speechless. Of course, there’s other more serious stuff in the article too, which is more disturbing.

a question of efficiency

There is a semi-circular drive on the west side of the campus, and I usually bike or walk up it on my way in to school every day. Most pedestrians walk on the sidewalk on the outer edge. Let r denote the radius to the sidewalk on the inner edge of the drive, and r’ the width of the road. Then a pedestrian on the outer edge walks a distance of (π/2) r + r’ to reach the east side of the top of the drive, whereas a pedestrian on the inner edge walks a distance of (π/2) (r + r’). Clearly the inner path is shorter, yet fewer people take it.

As an extra credit problem, why does it make sense for me to take the outer path anyway?

but where will I read?

The Morrison Reading Room is closed during intersession, 8/14-8/29. Reading outside is fun and all, but that place can’t be beat for a chapter of a novel and a 30 minute nap in the middle of the day. Lately I’ve been struck by terrible midday lethargy and I can’t get myself to focus on work, so I sometimes trundle down there for a change of scene. Now I’ll just have to drink more coffee.

three characters

When I got to North Gate, The Crew was there — I refer to them as The Crew because they’re often hanging out around there. Today’s configuration was especially canonical.

Allison, a thin black man with a salt and pepper beard, is almost always wearing huge dark sunglasses. He diligently sweeps the sidewalks around northside, gathering the leaves into piles, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen him throw the leaves out. This time he was sweeping up outside the parking lot. When not sweeping, he usually stands outside Seven Palms or the Korean BBQ on Euclid, asking for change. I’ve never seen him outside of Northside. He is very friendly.

Angry Man is not so friendly. The first time I encountered him he was storming down Oxford street and flipped me the bird as he strode by. He’s tall, black, with dreds and glasses, and always wears his backpack. Today he was in his usual spot, leaning on the wall on the NE corner of the intersection. If you walk past him in this mood, he usually mutters some insult under his breath, like “what a bitch” or “fuck off,” barely loud enough to hear. Sometimes he tries to kick people after the walk past, but he always launches the kick too late so that it won’t connect. I suppose it helps work off aggression. He’s never directly asked me for money, but I see people go up and give him money.

The Conversationalist sits on the low wall outside the Journalism School across the street from Angry Man. He’s white, with strawberry blonde curly hair, although I think it’s going white. He too has glasses, and a pair of old thin headphones with a walkman. He is constantly talking to someone, explaining or debating some point, usually political. He has never asked me for money, or indeed shown any inclination of talking to anyone other than his supposed conversation partner. Perhaps he is talking to the radio or a tape.

The Crew are regulars on the Northside scene. You don’t always see them there at the same time; Angry Man and The Conversationalist wander pretty far and wide. But this morning’s everydayness prompted me to write down these notes.

terrible writing

I was too lazy to bike all the way uphill on Hearst so I parked my bike near Tolman Hall and grabbed the Daily (or bi-weekly) Cal to read on the hike up. It being a slow news day, I ended up reading a terrible article on some Raiders player who used to play for Berkeley. The gist was that because he played well under a new coach at Berkeley, he will play well under a new coach for the Raiders. With such stunning leaps of logical deduction, pinning correlation to causation, I am led to conclude that the world of Berkeley sports writers consists largely of complete idiots. I honestly think that reading articles like that makes one dumber.