It’s strange and deeply uncomfortable to burst into tears during a theatre performance. It’s also wonderfully cathartic. After all, isn’t that the whole point of art: to make you feel things so deeply, to empathize with the material to the point that the pain and grief and everything else on display become your own?
Admittedly I’m pretty good at empathizing (or pretty terrible, depending on your viewpoint). It’s not unusual for me to get swept away during a show. (Or a movie or a book or a freaking YouTube video about elephants.)
This does, however, make opening nights rather awkward – especially when the performance hits you in such a way that you so hopelessly melt down in the last few minutes that it’s impossible to recover enough to go out into the lobby and nibble canapés and chat like your heart wasn’t just ripped from your chest and crushed into the ground.
Such was the case at the opening night of 9 Parts of Desire, the latest Maggie Tree show at the newly minted Varscona Theatre. (I guess it has been open for a few months now so it’s not super new anymore, but this was the first time I’d been in the new space because I’ve fallen woefully behind on attending theatre.)
9 Parts of Desire is an off-Broadway hit written by Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo. It presents the stories of nine very different Iraqi women and was originally a one-woman show, with Raffo herself playing all nine parts. Taken together, the stories paint a portrait of what life was like in Iraq between the two Gulf wars, after 30 years of Saddam Hussein’s American-supported rule and then a bloody war with Iran that saw 1.5 million people perish.
The Maggie Tree’s production, which is in association with Theatre of the New Heart, expands the original and gives each of the nine parts to a different performer. There are also two musicians, a violinist (Etelka Nyilasi) and vocalist (Jenny Boutros), who provide beautiful, haunting musical accompaniment to the show.
The set appropriately evokes the image of a bombed-out building: dirty concrete and twisted fingers of rebar poking down from a hole blasted in the ceiling. A chair sits in front of a television set on stage left. The musicians sit at the back of stage right. A few stools shaped like dead tree stumps are littered across the stage and a thin channel winds its way across to a small pool of water at the front, evoking a dried-up desert riverbed.
The show begins with the nine characters singing as they remove their shoes and place them before this river. A narrator (Christine Frederick), clad head to toe in a black abaya, tells us that “the river must eat” and “this river is the colour of worn soles (souls).”
The nine characters are as diverse as the women portraying them. The show is framed around the story of the curator of an Iraqi museum, Layal (Amena Shehab), who has decided to stay in her country despite the danger. She’s funny and sassy as she discusses her work and her life – she’s a wonderful painter and a miserable wife, she admits bluntly. She justifies her work, which includes billboard-sized portraits of Hussein as well as depictions of nude women (“there’s Layal obsessed with her body again,” she says, miming her critics). Her humour and cynicism are her armour, later peeled back to reveal Layal’s deep wounds and vulnerabilities.
The other characters vary deeply in their experiences. There’s Amal (Nimet Kanji), a Bedouin with a big heart and a few ex-husbands; the Doctor (Nadien Chu), who’s dealing with horrific genetic mutation and cancers caused by depleted uranium in the husk of her once-prominent hospital; Huda (Patricia Darbasie) a scotch-drinking, acerbic, exiled academic; a nameless girl (Rebecca John) who dances to N’Sync and recounts the horrors she’s witnessed with blasé numbness; Umm Ghada (Natasha Prasad), a tour guide who calmly walks us through a site of wartime brutality and inhuman suffering; the American (Nicole St. Martin), who married into an Iraqi family and is glued to news coverage of the war, bitterly disgusted with her fellow Americans who have all turned the channel; and Nanna (Alison Wells), a beggar woman who singularly destroyed any chance I’d have of keeping my emotions in check with a few simple words.
9 Parts of Desire opened the day after Trump ordered an airstrike on Syria: a viciously apt twist of fate. But given what’s happened and continues to happen in the Middle East since the show debuted in 2003, it continues to be sadly, sickeningly relevant. What makes Desire so singularly devastating is that it eschews any political stance and simply shows you what it’s like to live and love through war. The messages and emotions conveyed on stage are complicated, messy, defiant of easy explanation or understanding. 9 Parts of Desire doesn’t deliver a simple “war is bad” message. It’s so much more than that.
I honestly haven’t been able to really sort out why I responded in such a visceral way. From the looks of people in the lobby, I was in the minority as far as overt emotional reaction goes. I suspect for a lot of people, it’s just another story about the Middle East. Maybe they were able to compartmentalize it the way we do with the rest of the endless media stream of atrocities that happen day in, day out.
I admit to being one of those people who changed the channel a long time ago. I didn’t want to deal with processing all of the horror and pain and mind-bogglingly contradictory political machinations that have been happening for decades in the Middle East. The war also seems far away from my own life here in Edmonton. I don’t have any relatives from the affected areas, or who have served in the military. It was easy to tune out.
So maybe that’s why it was so upsetting: in an hour and a half I was forced to confront the deeply human side of those wars, which I had blocked out until now. My reaction is also a testament to Raffo’s excellent script, and especially to the skill of this group of performers. They were alternately nuanced and garrulous, quietly affecting and shockingly blunt.
There’s a whole other side to the play that I didn’t even touch on yet, and which I hope to see others discuss over the show’s run: the diversity of the cast. This is especially poignant given the recent turmoil in the Edmonton theatre community with the Walterdale’s recently cancelled production of Othello. Some people might take issue to performers of non-Iraqi descent – including a couple of white women – playing Iraqis. The Maggie Tree seems prepared and actually eager to have this conversation, as they are hosting a couple of panel discussions after the shows on Wednesday, April 12 and Thursday, April 13.
I don’t expect most people will react to 9 Parts of Desire the same way I did. (But consider yourself warned.) It’s a show I wish everyone would see, though – and I know that sentiment gets tossed around a lot, but I don’t use it lightly and I do really mean it. I wish especially that the show could be seen by every single politician who has ever made a military decision, directly or indirectly, as well as every person who has given a flippant, dismissive, one-sentence assessment of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
9 Parts of Desire is the kind of show that can move you deeply, if you let it. If you do go, I suggest you let it do just that: let yourself feel these things, social conventions be damned. You can always slip quietly out the back.