Zeina Salame's One Woman Show: 9 Parts of Desire.

July 16, 2013 0 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Exquisite, Excruciating and Exceptional. 5& Dime's recent performance of Heather Raffo's 1993 era award winning play was the kind of theatre that makes a difference, and Metro Jacksonville was there to take in the dark magic. Salame's performance was fresh and authentic and profoundly moved the audiences who came to CoRK North's impromptu stage. More after the Jump!

One of the things that I like about the 5&Dime; Theatre company is that they really seem to get the point of pure theatre.  Too often, groups and organizations make the mistake of replacing the ghost of theatre with its trappings.

The theatre experience, in its purest form does not reside in upholstered seats, tickets, proscenium stages, expensive curtains or specialty lights.  It is an interaction between people at its irreducible basic unit:  The performer(s) and an audience.  Some of the most compelling theatre in my life has happened on the streets of Seattle and Paris and within the confines of small country churches at Baptisms.  On the other hand, some of the most soul killing waste of two hour time blocs have been in 20 million dollar facilities with lots of hoopla.

If the ghost of the theatre is there----that simple transaction between people, then you don't need anything else.

But a beautiful edifice that doesnt have it, is merely architecture that has people moving around in it.

In almost all things, 5&Dime; seems to prefer the pure theatre experience to the machinery and trappings of the industry, and I couldnt be better suited.  I would rather be captivated by the kinaesthetics of a talented performer than bored silly by a production that stars a complicated set.

With this in mind, 9 Parts of Desire was a perfect example of Theatre reduced to its radical essentials, and is another solid brick in the foundation of the company's reputation.

As you can see from the plentiful references, it is a one woman show, written by Heather Raffo, and infused with her experience of the women of Iraq during the First Gulf War under Bush the First.  Because of the endless involvement of the US in that part of the world in the intervening 20 years, it is just as relevant---and considering the politics was a pretty bold choice for Zeina to mount in the first place.

Keep in mind that Jacksonville is a military town, with many many residents who have personal experiences in the Gulf Wars.  The interaction of the women to the American military invasion and occupation are spare and dont wince at the tragedies of the policies.  While it is as politically mixed as anywhere else, it has been my experience of the past 20 years that the Arts Edifice in the city seems to have a 'No Rocking the Boat" policy and have made some fairly craven programming choices in the name of appeasing potential critics at the expense of staying relevant.  Its nice to see that the independent companies are reversing this trend.

The performance was publicized and marketed by an online campaign linked to a facebook page and email.

As if by magic, the invited members of the audience showed up with little harrassment at the space chosen for the production: an empty studio at the CoRK complex of buildings.

There was no marquee, no lights advertising the performance, in fact ticketholders were hard pressed to decide which door they were supposed to be looking for when they got to the location.  

When our group navigated the building and decided on an entrance (we were following other people actually), we wandered into an unstructured space that was basically a hallway leading to an internal gallery.  Along this hallway were the standard 5&Dime; Experience Runway.  There is a check in booth.  Most people have already purchased and verified their tickets online, so they are just checking in to make sure that they are still on the list.  There are a few people who are purchasing tickets the night of the show, but its really surprising how many of their audience are social networked theatre patrons.

As you keep going back there was one of those little touches that makes you realize how thoughtful for the 'experience' in context to their chosen material the theatre group is unfailingly.  Its an offering of middle eastern cuisine and foods that have been catered in just for the occasion.  And not the kind of prepackaged 'meditteranean' bits that pass as middle eastern cuisine.  These are thoughtfully prepared dishes and finger foods that could have been prepared by someone's grandmother.  Its possible that they actually were.

I stuck with the vegan option of some seriously mouthwatering cinnamon crusted almonds.

We stepped into the performance area and it is set up as an arabic cabaret performance:

Seating in the round. plump cushions around the inner circle, and lots of colorful pillows to rest on.  Then backed up by concentric circles of chairs.

In the four cardinal points of theater in the round there are small two foot cubes set up.  On these are platters with figs, olives, apricots and almonds.  We seat ourselves on the ground, atop a mountain of cushions and lay on them in the manner of Gaius Cassius and company.

In that hallway, we were met by Barbara Colaciello and a retinue of the more tasteful theatre women from the Beaches.  Barbara had just returned from NYC and full of gossip from the City.

ZEINA SALAME has spent the last several years teaching English and Theatre at Daytona State College. She has an MA in English from UNF and an MS in Theatre from FSU. Jacksonville roles include Josie in A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN, and Helen in FAT PIG. She will be heading to the University of Oregon this Fall, where she will be taking on a graduate teaching fellowship and begin work on her PhD in theatre. Zeina is a a co-founder of The 5 & Dime.

The Performance.

It is worth noting before going much further that Zeina Salame took Heather Raffo's work and totally made it her own.  She brought an earthy authenticity to the play that gave the material an immediacy and pathos that created a real window onto the world being experienced in tandem by the characters of the show.  

First a note about the staging and transitions:

Any one woman show that isnt a confectionary for costumiers or stagecraft imagineers must necessarily work very hard to create the ghost of theatre. Salame's task was even more daunting because of the roughness and non theatrical nature of the space that she was performing in.  And yet, she managed it brilliantly.

She did it through a few simple symbolic devices and no real costume changes.

For performances, the little snack tables located at the four cardinal points were cleared and they served as seating for her characters.  In this manner, she was able to deliver the character monologues from different points of view, speaking to different parts of the audience as she progressed through the course of the play.  Each character was associated with one of the defined areas and as the various women  appear and reappear in the stories Salame would return to their established position to denote the character changes.

The lighting changed almost not at all.

But she did do something pretty amazing and noteworthy with a prop that was also part of her costuming transitions:  A long bolt of somber, utterly black cloth.

In her first monologue she uses it as a metaphor for a black river, where the women have come to wash.  In the process, she established it as an object of symbolism and she uses it as the main element for all of her transitions.  Sometimes it is a headcloth, sometimes it is a flowing dress, sometimes it is a security blanket.

As we watch, a character monologue will wind down, and then in a moment of silence, Salame will take the bolt of cloth and with very intentional actions rearrange it while she moves to a different area of the stage and becomes her next character.

Each of her characterizations were very strong bits of developed personality work.  The character list and a good bit of information and background about the work are below for reference, but I would like to pause and point out some of her best performances.

Salame's performance as Layal is just amazing.  While Heather Raffo created the character onstage as one of the willowy, iron women of the middle east, (in keeping with her own abilities) Zeina played her as a tremendously earthy, confident Astoreth, supremely in charge of her own universe and willing to cut bargains with the world in order to enjoy it more fully.  The character choices made this curious, doomed character an everyman that anyone in the audience could connect to and empathise with.  As the show itself was inspired by a work referenced in Layal's storyline, it is a pretty central role that has impact in the storylines of the other women.  Her Layal was the emotional bedrock of the show and an interation of the feminine that is rarely portrayed onstage with as much confidence and easy frankness.

Equally, her portrayal of Huda, the cynical old woman living in London is a masterpiece of character realization.  Old, stiffened, nearly crippled with too much muchness, she drinks alcohol and provides commentary from the Hallowed Crone face of womanhood.  Zeina uses this character to great effect, in such a way that her words provide serious context to the horrors that are experienced in deepening degrees by the younger women who are left behind.

Perhaps her most poignant bit of work is at the literal opposite end of the feminine spectrum, as an unnamed 'Iraqi Girl'.  She transforms into an 11 or 12 year old, whose sunny disposition provides context for the fact that her innocence is the mother of sorrows in her life.  Its a tricky character---easy to make maudlin, even easier to turn into a caricature.  Salame walked a tightrope line in the character and the monologue is every bit as context setting as Huda's defeatism.  Seriously wonderful work.

There were no weak characterizations in the overall performance, which ran a little long. But these three, the child, the empowered woman and the hallowed crone were truly standouts in Salame's efforts onstage.

It is bleak work, and this performance was made even more poignant because of the deep, somber, approachable humanity of each of these characters.  The show manages that most critical task aspired to by any work of political significance:  To make its viewers more socially aware and more in touch with the human condition.

We left the show more in tune with the world around us, moved (like many in the audience) to tears by the actress onstage.

What more can a theatre hope for?

review by stephen dare

Arabic Calligrapher: ISAM FARHAT
Marketing Coordinators: JUDY GOULD and DANIEL AUSTIN
Website & Poster Design: CARYL BUTTERLEY
PR Photographer & Videographer: TAMI SALAME
Box Office Manager: KRYSTEN BENNETT
Reception Coordinator: KIM SCHNEPF
Production Videographer: SUSAN J ROCHE
Production Photographer: DAVID GANO

Heather Raffo was born in 1970 and grew up in Michigan. Her father is Iraqi and her mother is American. She received her BA from the University of Michigan, and her MFA from the University of San Diego. She is currently living in New York. She and her family have visited Iraq frequently since 1974. During Raffo’s trip to Iraq in 1993 to visit relatives, she interviewed several Iraqi women and used what she learned to document the impact of political oppression on several generations of women. What she heard and learned from the women she interviewed became the nine stories of life and survival in a land tyrannized by Saddam Hussein and war. Heather was inspired to write this play after seeing a painting in Baghdad. The painting was a nude woman clinging to a barren tree. The painter was killed by an American bomb.

The play delves into the many conflicting aspects of what it means to be a woman in an age-old war zone. It is an expression of Iraqi Muslim culture and shows a perspective that many Americans have never before experienced.

Letter from the author:

When I was standing in the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad, I saw rooms after room of portraits of Saddam Hussein. I then wandered up some stairs into a back room and saw a haunting painting of a nude woman clinging to a barren tree. Her head was hanging, bowed, and there was a golden light behind her like a sun. I stood motionless in front of the painting. I felt she had captured something within me. I took a photo of the painting, came back to America and over the last ten years have been digesting this painting and what it must mean to be an Iraqi woman now.

As an American with a father who was born in Iraq, I naturally live on both sides of the issues. The first Gulf War was the most defining moment of my life. I was in school at the University of Michigan. I remember watching many of my fellow students at the bar cheering the war as it played out on TV, while I was worried if my family in Baghdad was even going to survive. Over a decade later, I think Americans are deeply questioning their place in Iraq, and wondering about its history: Who are its people? What do they want? Why are we there? Did we do the right thing?

So if you could imagine going to Baghdad and getting to overhear a Bedouin woman at her hairdressers telling her secrets about the man she loves and her heartache at why he doesn’t love her in the context of the above questions, my play becomes vitally immediate.

I intended to write a piece about the Iraqi psyche, something that would inform and enlighten the images we see on T.V. However, the play is equally about the American psyche. It 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 plays a vital role in the show with each Iraqi character speaking directly to them in English as if they were a trusted western friend. I wanted the audience 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 the play as a celebration of life. 9 Parts of Desire is also about the need for feminine strength as a necessary part of any culture's endurance.

The material I gathered came from hours of gaining the trust of Iraqi women. I had the right mix: I was half Iraqi so they opened up to me immediately, but I was also Western so they felt they could express fears or secrets that might otherwise be judged more harshly by someone from their culture. And most importantly, I had to share as much of myself with them as they were sharing with me. My process was not one of formal interviews, but rather a process of living with, eating with, communicating compassionately and loving on such a level, that when I parted from their homes it was clear to all that we were now family. When an Iraqi woman trusts you it is because she has come to love you and that has been the process of finding and forming these stories.

With rare exception, none of the stories are told verbatim. Most are composites and although based in fact, I consider all the women in my play to be dramatized characters in a poetic story. I liken it to song writing – I listened deeply to what each woman said, what she wanted to say but couldn’t, and what she never knew how to say.

Zeina Salame portrays each of the characters below:

Mullaya: A traditional hired woman who leads call and response with women mourning at a funeral.

Layal: An artist in Iraq who is a resilient and fragile woman. She is a daredevil with a killer smile.

Amal: A 38 years old woman who has been divorced a couple of times; she is always asking questions and wants an answer to anything

Huda: A seventy-something Iraqi woman exiled in London who drinks whisky and has been smoking for fifty years. She has a keen sense of humor.

The Doctor: An Iraqi doctor who is always desperate to keep her hands clean.

Iraqi Girl: A girl who is into listening to ‘N SYNC, and wants to go to school but her mother will not allow it; speaks English better than many others

UMM Ghada: A mother who lost all her children during a bombing. A woman of great stillness and pride; peaceful and dispassionate.

The American: An American woman who is in New York City glued to her TV. Nanna: An old woman, she is selling anything she can on the street corner to survive and help her family.

The Sunni and the Shia –The Conflict

Shia are the minority in the Muslim world, making up about 10-15 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion total Muslim people. The Shia are primarily located in Iran, southern Iraq, southern Lebanon, and Bahrain. The main differences that led to the formation of these two religious groups turned on disagreements about who should be the successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim people. Islam’s schism thus began immediately after Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E. Some of his followers believed the role of Caliph – the political leader of the Muslim community – should be passed down through Muhammad’s blood relatives, beginning with his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. However, the majority of Muslims, who later came to be called Sunnis, or followers of the Sunnah (example) of the Prophet Muhammad, believed that political leadership of the community should be handed to the most qualified person, not through heriditary lines. The Sunnis selected Abu Bakr as Caliph, one of Muhammad’s closest friends and advisors.

Eventually, Ali was chosen as the fourth Caliph, but was assassinated a few years later . Ali was killed fighting in present-day Iraq. The violence between the two groups continued to ensue. After Ali was killed, Hussein took over the leadership of the Shia. Hussein and 72 members of his family and companions fought against the Arab army of the Caliph and were massacred near Karbala in 680 C.E. Hussein’s death holds a deep sacred meaning for the Shia. Hussein’s death is honored every year in a public mourning ritual known as Ashura, where Shia faithful march and cry in the streets, and many flagellate themselves with whips.

During the next few centuries, Islam had several armed conflicts with European Crusaders, Mongol conquerors, and Ottoman Turks. In the 1500s, Persia predominantly observed Sunni Islamic teachings. Upon the arrival of the Azeri conquerors, Persia was transformed to practice Shiite ideals. Persia remained under the control of the Shiites into the 20th Century. While the beginning of the Sunni-Shia divide was violent, over the centuries the two groups exited peacefully for long periods of time. That peaceful coexistance has recently given way to conflict. The conflict between the two groups is most obvious in Iraq since the 2003 American-led invasion and occupation. Currently, the struggle for power between the Sunni and Shia is an ongoing battle.