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24.9.06

9 Parts of Desire, Arena Stage

Other Reviews:

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

Dolan Cummings, Nine Parts of Desire, Edinburgh (Culture Wars, August 1, 2003)

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

Lisa Zapol, Nine Parts of Desire, London (Curtain Up, September 14, 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)

Charles T. Downey, 9 Parts of Desire (Ionarts, 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)

Charles T. Downey, Playing Nine Parts (Ionarts, January 22, 2005)
Heather Raffo will perform her one-woman play 9 Parts of Desire here in Washington at the Arena Stage this fall, opening on September 29 and running through November 12. When Raffo performed it in London in 2003, The Independent listed it as one of the best five plays in London, and The Times said it was the best play there that season. After the 2004-05 extended run in New York at Manhattan Ensemble Theater, where I saw 9 Parts in January 2005, Heather Raffo received a Special Commendation for the play from the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, awarded to best new play written by a woman. Raffo has performed the play all over the English-speaking world, and her Web site announces that it is being translated into other languages for productions in other countries.

9 Parts 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. 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 Raffo 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 count them, indeed? Doing so would make us more honest.

Heather Raffo, 9 Parts of DesireTechnically speaking, what Raffo 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.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that Heather Raffo and I went to high school together in Michigan. She was an intelligent and talented actress even then. I am hardly surprised that she has succeeded to the degree she has, and I am thrilled to get the chance to see 9 Parts of Desire a second time.

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