“[9 Parts of Desire] is a dialogue between East and West. The characters are deeply engaged in circumstances unique to them as Iraqis and yet through their passions seem to answer the concerns of the West. The audience members play a vital role in the show, with each Iraqi character speaking directly to them in English as if they were trusted Western friends. I wanted the audience member to see these women not as the “other” but much more like themselves than they would have initially thought. I felt it was important to create a safe environment to experience both horror and humor but ultimately to see 9 Parts of Desire as a celebration of life.”
This is an excerpt from the program notes of playwright and director Heather Raffo, an American of Iraqi decent who–through a series of interviews with Iraqi women, both citizens and exiles–has created a fascinating, insightful, thoroughly entertaining and moving 90 minutes of theatre entitled 9 Parts of Desire. The play, which opens Krannert Center’s current season, is a meditation on the complex relationship between America and Iraq through the eyes of its women. From the moment you enter the Studio space and immerse yourself in the bomb-shelter oasis of scenic designer Yeaji Kim’s evocative and dream-like/nightmarish world, you know you are entering a unique realm of beauty and danger.
As the women–initially clad in confining and concealing burqas–begin their hypnotic and poetic spell, you know you are entering a forbidden space of courage and painful intimacy that few have seen. As the burqas give way to costume designer Hanfeng Tiana Liu’s surprisingly lush and fashionable couture, we see how East and West meet in these women’s lives and personalities. Raffo (pictured, right) uses her interview materials–as well as her experience as a young American college student listening to her peers cheer the invasion of Iraq as she fears for her extended family’s safety–as a broad canvas to embellish the history of these women and their bravery in the face of attack and conflict. It is a stunning and powerful effort on all counts, staged beautifully with an almost voyeuristic sense of illicitly catching the private thoughts of the characters as they struggle to survive their lives.
These characters move from monologue to monologue with a powerful sound design by Mark McClain Wilson and a mostly effective lighting design by MichelleBenda, allowing the scene to be subtly set as each actress weaves her spell (I only wish Benda’s final moment was less illuminated and more focused to draw us in to the powerful final moments of the work). A luminous presence is created by Tess Hernandez as Layla, portraying a lusty and voluptuous artist who stays in Iraq as her family flees to the safety of the West. This character provides the life and humor of the piece, and she is eventually an emotional anchor for the play’s powerful poetry and pathos; Hernandez performs the role admirably, with fire and defiance. Likewise, Tanisha Lynn Pyron and Martasia Jones give skillful interpretations of their characters, as (respectively) a young woman who loves love and an exiled sophisticate watching her country vilified and destroyed by a government which just years before enabled Hussein’s toxic regime. Both actors embody the mixed emotions of women who are trapped between worlds and questioning their personal and political loyalties as their lives spin out of control.
The atrocities of Hussein’s reign are on full display throughout as character after character describes the personally restrictive and terrifying victimization of its culture for women in Hussein’s Iraq. Stephanie Feidman and Nora Foley give equallymoving accounts of life’s struggles for these women and their struggles with Western influences and Eastern struggles; and Kristina Loy, as the playwright’s alter ego, provides the rage and fear of a woman trapped between two cultures and is the emotional core of this complex work.
Like the ancient tiles, war-scarred topography, and lush tapestries utilized in the impressive set, these women are an amalgam of decadence and damage, heroism and strength. You will fall in love with their complexities as you struggle to understand the poetic brutality of the world they inhabit. This is a unique and powerful experiment in theatre; it demands your attention as it extols the power of quality theatre in the C-U area in general and KCPA in particular. Make plans to see this while you still can.
photos by Wes Pundt