By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Survival: Life and love in a time of war and occupation.
There is nothing simple about the lives of the nine Iraqi women we meet in the 2003 play cum theatrical documentary that opens Thursday in a Maggie Tree production.
In 9 Parts of Desire by the Iraqi-American actor Heather Raffo, characters step forward into the light from a dark canvas of oppression and brutality. And while they are a study in contrast — in age, education, economic class, religious and political attitude — they all know something profound about suffering and violence, compliance and resistance.
Among the women who own the nine monologues we meet a doctor, a kid enamoured of American culture, a Bedouin matron, an artist who both prospers in the Saddam Hussein regime and records its savagery. In fact, as Raffo has explained, in her playwright’s notes to the script, it was a painting called Savagery in the Saddam Art Centre that inspired her artist character, Layla, in 9 Parts of Desire.
Amid the official portraits of Saddam, there it was, a portrait of a naked woman, clinging to a tree. That mysterious sighting happened during Raffo’s family visit to Baghdad in 1993, not long after the First Gulf War. After that came the decade of interviews, strangers and family friends and acquaintances, that formed the fabric of her play, named for an Imam Ali saying: “God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine parts to women, and one to men.”
.The Maggie Tree, an award-winning Edmonton collective devoted to providing opportunities for female artists, and enhancing their profile, has long been intrigued by 9 Parts of Desire. But, a half a world away from its characters, and many years away from its creation, the play came with daunting challenges, says director Vanessa Sabourin, a co-founder (with Kristi Hansen) of The Maggie Tree.
Relevance wasn’t one of them, says Sabourin. “It seemed to be more and more relevant as we thought about it. The refugee crisis, the bombings in Syria, Trump was running…. And it resonated in Canada. We are still an occupied country; we still haven’t resolved basic stuff like access to drinking water for Indigenous people.”
Authenticity of voice was a crucial question for the Edmonton theatre. In its Off-Broadway run, 9 Parts of Desire came to the stage as a solo show: Raffo herself played all the parts. “She could do it, (a) she wrote it, (b) she’s Iraqi and American,” says Sabourin.
But that wouldn’t work for an Edmonton theatre company. So “other conversations followed,” Sabourin says. “Conversations about diversity in theatre, voice appropriation. Who can tell whose story?” The play was written for Western audiences, as she points out. “But do our communities mingle enough?”
The Maggie Tree considered a three-actor production, and then decided on a cast of nine for the monologues. When the first audition calls didn’t produce much age range, they auditioned again. “Not many aboriginal artists came,” says Sabourin. “I felt it was important to have at least one…”
“We need to put a piece of ourselves in this. What is relevant to us?”
For The Maggie Tree, it’s become not just a production, but a whole project in mind-expansion and “learning about somebody else,” Sabourin says. “With nine people, there are more smart brains in the room.”
“What does Canada look like? It’s important for us to be asking because of the divisive conversations now. It raises questions like how complacent should we be? How can we make positive choices?”
“Our nine actors are all Canadians but represent different heritages and life experiences,” says Sabourin. “They connect to the script from different backgrounds, different perspectives.”
“Occupation is highly complicated. Motivation is complicated too; it’s so often about power, money, oil…. Always innocent civilians pay the price.”
To help them approach the complexities of Iraqi culture, Sabourin and Kristen found themselves two Iraq consultants, Jalal Barzanji and Mona Esmjaeel. The lobby artist Fordos Lateef is Iraqi. The production team, including the musicians, have diverse ethnic backgrounds.
“For us, it’s been a huge thought bomb!” declares Sabourin. “Huge!”
“It’s about surviving. It’s about the human spirit. And it’s also about love.. There’s no Us or Them. There’s only Us. That’s why we wanted to do this piece.”
9 Parts of Desire
Theatre: The Maggie Tree
Written by: Heather Raffo
Directed by: Vanessa Sabourin
Starring: Nadien Chu, Alison Wells, Christine Frederick, Patricia Darbasie, Rebecca John, Amena Shehab, Nicole St. Martin, Natasha Prasad, Nimet Kanji
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through April 15
Tickets: TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)