Most of the world has an outside-in perspective on Iraq, but the Lyric Stage Company is presenting an insider’s view in Iraqi-American writer/performer Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire. Súgán Theatre Company artistic director Carmel O’Reilly helms the regional premiere of the one-woman show, in which Lanna Joffrey portrays nine separate Iraqi women.
“These are the voices of women who are never heard,” O’Reilly explains. “The piece covers a woman in her 70s to a young girl to a woman of 38. These are unique voices, but they speak to all of us because each woman is talking about all the same things — family and children and values and love.”
The performer of 9 Parts changes character by adjusting her abaya, the traditional black Iraqi robe, and the different voices “are very beautiful,” O’Reilly adds. “It’s written in a way that you sense there’s a kind of song.”
Playwright Raffo is currently dividing her performance time between two productions (in Washington and in LA). She grew up in Michigan a first-generation Iraqi-American but still has family in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. She views the play as a work in progress. “I only do rewrites when I feel like the Iraqi psyche has taken a shift, not for every bombing.” And having one performer embody nine different characters was a way to underscore the “sense of civil war.”
Raffo is a journalist as well as a performer, and she spent 11 years conducting interviews with Iraqi women. She explains that the first Gulf War, the subsequent sanctions, and a second war made her “need” to write a play. “As an actor, I was always looking for plays to do, and I didn’t know I had a writing gene in me. It came out because I had so much to say — not because I thought I could say it. It was burning inside me.” The stories that are revealed in the play range from that of an artist whose paintings of Saddam hung in museums to women who have lost their entire family to coalition bombing raids.
Her play isn’t the only one to be inspired by the war, but she sees it as the first to get across a different perspective. “The other plays out there are deeply political in tone, but they’re Western in their point of view. They don’t address the Iraqi psyche from the inside.”
That psyche was badly bruised during the period of sanctions that followed the first Gulf War, when the Iraqi middle class “was just depleted and the country became impoverished — not just technically, but mentally. And after 13 years of that, it’s a very precarious situation for women. Since the occupation, they have less rights than ever, but the 13 years of sanctions took them to more of a fundamentalist state.”
Raffo describes the Iraqi women she knows as “very strong and loving, with an incredible survival instinct. They don’t play the victim.” In her own family, her female relations are “really touched when I tell them, ‘I want to tell people what you think about things.’ They can’t quite believe it. They’re fascinated to hear that Americans are interested in hearing what they think.”
9 PARTS OF DESIRE | Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St, Boston | October 20–November 18 | $23-$47 | 617.585.5678 or www.lyricstage.com