“Early in the morning, always early, I come to throw dead shoes in the river ... today the river must eat.”
The shadow of a woman with a vessel on her head glides beneath a ruined facade of blue tile and plaster, her figure in traditional abaya emerging from behind the plastic tarps screening off the rubble, past sandbags (which later double as pillows) and pours sandals into a pool surrounded by yet more tile, as she pronounces these words.
She is a professional mourner in Baghdad, the first of the fe male characters played by Mozhan Marnò in 9 Parts of Desire, the solo show written by Heather Raffo, now on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage.
She goes on: “When the grandson of Genghis Khan burned all the books in Baghdad, the river ran blac k with ink ... We were promised so much. The Garden of Eden was here ... Bring me back to the water I was created in.”
Marnò changes quickly from one character into another, cutting across class lines as well as leaping geographically, playing an exile d Iraqi woman.
“Exile in London is mostly Scotch,” she says. “Let it [the war] be chaos; maybe something will come out of it ... I’ve always been political, though I’m bourgeois. In Beirut I protested ... Everywhere I go there is a war ... This war is ag ainst all my beliefs, yet I’m for it.”
She also portrays a young Iraqi-American, compulsively watching TV, spending hours trying to reach family members. “We make a movie, go on Oprah, talk about it like we’re moving on,” she says. “‘The war, it’s so hea rtbreaking,’ the woman next to me said. She was getting a pedicure; I was getting a pedicure ... I can’t walk down the street and see people smiling.”
It’s diversity with a vengeance. An artist favored by the regime, based on a woman portraitist of Sadda m that Raffo interviewed in the 90s, speaks of her love life, brushing off an unseen interlocutor’s questions with a wave of her cigarette holder: “Iraqis know not to open their mouths, even for the dentist ... I will never leave, not for freedom we don’t have. Your Western culture, sister, will not free me from being called a whore.”
Later, a poor street vendor will try to sell one of the artist’s watercolors: “You must buy ... Our history is finished, so it is more worth. Two dollars! I have to eat.”
There is the doctor retching over the sewage overflowing in the hospital wards, talking about the genetic abnormalities, how the depleted uranium from ordnance will go on for centuries (and children wear radioactive shell fragments as trinkets), revealing her own scars to a girl with breast cancer who embraces her—and how she’s pregnant. The woman who leads tours of the shelter where over 400 people died, named just Umm Gheda, “Mother of Tomorrow,” after her dead daughter, Gheda: “Wild greens are growing. Nature chooses to grow around this grave of Iraqi people. My family is all here. We could not live together like this.”
9 Parts of Desire seems to follow closely the typical format of the more socially committed solo performances, like Anna Deveare Smit h’s pieces on the L.A. riots, and so on. But there’s a difference in both depth and nimbleness; maybe there’s a formula that equates speed with clarity.
Marnò, an Angelina of Iranian heritage, playing what Raffo (whose father is Iraqi) has written and pe rformed to acclaim in New York and London, displays an exceptional, disarming ability to almost dance, but just a single step at a time, from one role into the next, or reprise an earlier one, with an agility of gestures, expressions, accents. Each identi ty is established with its own peculiarities, its own rhythms, which add up to a syncopation of sensibilities, emotions—hearts beating together, though not in unison.
Solo performance is a very elastic form—usually too much so, all content (whatever fits), no form. 9 Parts of Desire doesn’t blaze any trails, but works within its limitations with grace and brevity, reflecting the good work of author, performer and director (Joanna Settle)—as well as of the designers (Antje Ellerman, set; Peter West, light s; Obadiah Eaves, sound—all of the New York show), and getting across the message, composed of all the little conflicting messages, with a directness and exceptional clarity that doesn’t stint the complexity of its subject.
Many have complained, with jus tice, that this war has been treated as “about us;” Iraqis are reduced to a shadowy enemy or to “man in the street” sound-bites of no consequence. 9 Parts of Desire makes an opening into the lives and talk of a people, of women, without sentimentality, an d at just the point where both domestic tyranny and the spin of the invasion/occupation has tried to speak for them.
It’s refreshing—upbeat, even—harrowing, absorbing and humane, bringing a situation overwrought with commentary back into focus, revealing figures, not images.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents 9 Parts of Desire on the Thrust Stage through March 5. For more information, call 647-2949 or see www.berkeleyrep.org.
Photograph by Kevin Berne
Mozhan Marnò stars in Nine Parts of Desire, a o ne-woman show about women in war-torn Iraq, on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage.›