If you feel as if you’ve heard a lot about Iraq – but don’t really know it – Fresno Pacific University has a play for you.
Director Julia Reimer offers some insights about her new production of “9 Parts of Desire,” which opens Friday.
Q: Tell us about the structure of the play.
A: “9 Parts of Desire” was originally a one-person show created and performed by American actor Heather Raffo telling the stories of 9 Iraqi women in the form of monologues. The structure was inspired in part by reading Ntozake Shange's “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” as an undergraduate. Raffo realized the power of the "choreopoem" form, which she then used to create her chorus of women for “9 Parts of Desire.” The characters are fictionalized, but as Raffo says, "true."
Q: Playwright Heather Raffo has been to Fresno before as part of Summer Arts. How much of her original one-woman performance is part of this revised production?
A: Raffo's first version was a 20-minute MFA Thesis performance in 1998. The idea came from her experiences visiting her Iraqi relatives just after the first Gulf War ended in 1993. A longer version premiered in Edinburgh and then had performances in London and New York, to critical acclaim. For the New York premiere in 2003, a prologue by the Mullaya, a professional mourner, was developed. When Raffo was in Fresno for the CSU Summer Arts six years ago, she presented excerpts of her show as part of a Writing a Solo Show session.
Q: Why did you choose this particular play?
A: A lot of colleges/universities are presenting plays this season that speak to the current political situation, including the great line-ups at Fresno State and Fresno City College. “9 Parts” relates in that it speaks to the global impact of our nation's choices, as well as how we understand each other internally across religious and cultural lines. But the play is also about how regular people who are doctors, artists, wives, mothers, daughters react to difficult, sometimes unimagineable, circumstances. We hear about Iraq in a certain way through the news. We wanted to create some balance in our American perception of Iraq and Iraqis.
Q: Do you use a single actor or multiple actors?
A: We've chosen to represent the nine characters with nine actors. Some productions will use 3 actors to portray the three central characters of Layal, Huda, and the American, and then divide the rest of the characters between them. We wanted to have more opportunities for our female actors as well as create a community of women. We've added some Arabic songs at the beginning to highlight that communal aspect.
Q: What is the significance of the title?
A: One of the hadiths from the Islamic scriptures says "God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." In the play, the women talk about husbands, lovers, the passion for art and for freedom, acts of violence towards women under Saddaam Hussein ... I think all those things come into play in relation to the title. Journalist Geraldine Brooks also used this title for a book about women in Islam, which was another influence on Raffo's creative process.
Q: For your students, does the play's discussion of Saddam Hussein seem like something in the distant past? How much background and history did you have to provide?
A: We did a lot of research during our first rehearsals and were able to connect with an Iraqi family who left Iraq in the early '90s. That was really helpful in terms of bringing it closer to home. We also just wanted to understand and appreciate Iraqi culture better, not to focus just on the wars, the oppressive regime, and what we see on the news, but to discover the rich and beautiful things about the culture. So we had cardamom tea together sitting on rugs, learned some Arabic and Arabic songs, and thought about how Iraqi history stretches back to nearly the beginning of time. But politically, there were absolutely historical political things that were so a part of my own consciousness--the first Gulf War, Sadaam's fall, Abu Ghraib--that I'd realize along the way that a lot of this was new knowledge for the cast members.
Q: Pick one of the nine vignettes of the play and tell us a little more about it.
A: One of the characters is a doctor from southern Iraq. She has just gone through a difficult delivery in a hospital without sufficient medical supplies or equipment. She talks about the impact the uranium from bullets has on the soil, the children who make necklaces out of them to wear, the cancer, the babies being born with defects. There's so much there that one thinks should just not be a part of anyone's daily life, children or adults.
Q: What do you hope audiences take from the play?
A: Raffo says it well, "Their history is our history. I mean, that was the cradle of civilization; aren't we all tied together from our beginnings?"
Q: How is it a commentary on the current situation in Iraq?
A: Iraq, Syria now...the story continues. The character Huda, a former activist/revolutionary now in her seventies, raises the question of what's going to happen next after the fall of Sadaam. That question is still being answered.
Q: Anything else you'd like to say?
A: Come hear the stories. Join us as we bear witness. Sign the witness book.