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22.1.05

Playing Nine Parts

Other Reviews:

Jackie McGlone, Looking for Layla (The Scotsman, July 24, 2003)

Michael Billington, Nine Parts of Desire (The Guardian, August 5, 2003)

Charles Isherwood, A Solitary Woman, Embodying All of Iraq (New York Times, October 14, 2004)

Lauren Sandler, An American and Her Nine Iraqi Sisters (New York Times, October 17, 2004)

Jorge Morales, Smart Bombs: Raffo stirringly documents the 'collateral damage' in Iraq (Village Voice, October 26, 2004)

Simi Horwitz, Heather Raffo: Exploring the Complexity of Identity (BackStage.com, November 2, 2004)

John Lahr, The Fury and the Jury (The New Yorker, November 8, 2004)

Deborah Amos, One-Woman Show on Iraq Draws Accolades (NPR, November 26, 2004)

Emily Botein, 3 Parts of Desire (The Next Big Thing, December 10, 2004)

Victoria Linchon, Nine parts of desire (theater2k.com, December 13, 2004)

Barbara Schoetzau, Iraqi-American Actress Scores Big Off-Broadway (VOA News, December 14, 2004)

Terry Teachout (Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2005)
I've already told the story here (9 Parts of Desire, December 13, 2004) of how I heard about Heather Raffo's one-person show, 9 Parts of Desire, now playing at Manhattan Ensemble Theatre in New York. I saw the show last weekend, on January 16, but I should let you know, in the interest of full disclosure, that Heather is a friend of mine from high school (as I wrote in that previous post), whom I was very glad to see again, briefly, after the show.

9 Parts of Desire is a taut, energetic 75 minutes of intense monologue, which shows how economy of style is superlatively incisive. Every word has been carefully measured, and there is little time for one's mind to wander until, with no intermission break for a rest, it's over. At least part of the attention the play has received comes from the timeliness, politically speaking, of its subject, because of that American military action grafted, through what has been revealed as little more than a sleight-of-hand trick, onto the "War on Terror," the Liberation of Iraq. Heather Raffo's father is an Iraqi immigrant to the United States, and she has many family members still living in Iraq, whose names she calls out during the play in a sort of protective mantra. What she reveals in her creation of nine Iraqi women's voices is the multifaceted nature of the problem we have created in that country. The rule of Saddam Hussein is depicted in the only way it can be, as brutal and oppressive. "How can we expect these people to liberate themselves?" one character asks.

No less brutal is the candid assessment of the American military's intervention, such as the effects of a bunker-blasting two-bomb system dropped by an American plane on an Iraqi target, leaving only "the silhouette of a woman vaporized by the heat" on the wall. Perhaps worse than the killing of civilians is the cavalier attitude in which we are implicit. The character closest to Heather herself, an American woman with Iraqi roots watching the television coverage of the war (CNN is mentioned by more than one character), cries out, "Why don't we count the Iraqi dead?" Because we don't really care about them, terrible as that is, is the only answer that makes sense. Why don't we, indeed? Doing so would make us more honest. (This week's edition of The Onion, as usual, cuts right through the bullshit of this jingoistic attitude: an "In the News" capsule has the tagline "Tsunami Death Toll Rises To 36 Americans.")

Technically speaking, what Heather does for these 75 minutes on the stage is virtuosic. With a simple twist of her abaya, the black robe that sometimes covers her body or head, she rapidly shifts among her range of characters under the distracting sound of booming music. She has created characters who remain in Iraq: a doctor dealing with the cancers and birth defects caused by traces of uranium left behind by decades of war; Umm Ghada, the mother who saw all her children die in a bombing raid and lives in the ruin of the shelter; a teenager who thinks that the American soldiers look like the members of her favorite band, 'N Sync; Amal, a Bedouin woman who describes her ex-husbands; Nanna, a woman trying to sell junk; the Mulaya, a mourner who feeds old shoes to the river; and the real source of all the characters, based on a rather famous Iraqi artist, Layal Attar, former curator of the Saddam Arts Center (she died in 1993). She also incarnates expatriate women, like Hooda, living in exile in London and perpetually nursing her Scotch, and the American woman watching CNN in dismay.

At one point, all the characters are juxtaposed in a wild tumult. As I listened to all of those voices and scenes again, mixed together, I realized how alive the characters were. We care about them, and that's the point. Roger Armbrust reports (Cancelled Play Among Blackburn Prize Noms, BackStage.com, January 20) that 9 Parts of Desire is one of 12 plays nominated to receive the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize this year. Hopefully, American recognition will follow Heather's success in Great Britain, where The Times (London) judged 9 Parts the best play in London in 2003 and The Independent said it was one of the best five plays in London. I wish Heather all the best. I'm so glad that I got to see her again.

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