Iraqi American playwright and actress Heather Raffo has scored a big hit off-Broadway with Nine Parts of Desire, a one-woman play in which she portrays a cross-section of Iraqi women.
Nine Parts of Desire is one of the few New York theater successes this year. The play has garnered rave reviews and been extended three times since it opened in October.
SCENE FROM PLAY: "Okay, I saw that routine. This is not Iraqis, no. Iraqis are not so degraded as this. Some people, they took bricks, from palaces only. Yeah, there were too many anyway. I heard a Marine saying 'Go in Ali Baba. Go in. Take what is yours.' They wanted us to have everything. Freedom to have!"
Critics have applauded the 34-year-old actress-playwright as a fresh new voice in American theater. But Heather Raffo says theater was not the ideal career choice for the daughter of an American mother and an Iraqi immigrant father growing up in the Midwestern state of Michigan.
"In fact, he refused to come visit me at college if I was going to study acting," she recalls. "He said, 'No, I will never come visit you.' I think it was two-weeks later that he was there with piles of fruits and vegetables saying 'Well, I happened to be driving by.' It was two hours from our house!"
Ms. Raffo says she and her father think of themselves as Americans, not Iraqi Americans. But after the 1991 Gulf War she went to Iraq to meet her relatives and discovered a great affinity with Iraqi women. She began collecting stories about Iraqi women and was already working on Nine Parts of Desire when terrorists attacked the United States on September 11th, 2001.
"I have been watching a lot of Arab American change in New York since September 11," she adds. "People did not really have to think about it. My dad says, 'Why would you call me an Arab American? Why would you call me an Iraqi American? I came here. I changed my citizenship. I live here.' So I respect that. I think that that is what being an American is. I was born in America. I do not look necessarily Iraqi or ethnic. I do not have an accent. I have never had to deal with aspects of being other."
Nine Parts of Desire debuted in Scotland at the Edinburgh Festival and played in London before it opened in New York. The cast of characters includes the innocent, the guilty, and the complicit. They are young, old, bitter, hopeful. In this scene, Ms. Raffo portrays an angry expatriate Iraqi.
SCENE FROM PLAY: "The mistake is not this war. My god, mistake. Mistake is supporting Saddam all his life. Giving him all these weapons. 'Please go fight this war with Iran, eh?' Every time there was an uprising. And he gassed Halabja, 5000 die in seconds. He drained the marshes, all the Marsh Arabs and now finally God, finally, after all these years they find him an old man in a hole and they want to give this man a fair trial?"
One of the play's most powerful characters is a grieving mother who lives outside of the Al Amaria bomb shelter, where a coalition bombing raid killed her children in 1991.
SCENE FROM PLAY: "I named my daughter Ghada. Ghada, it means tomorrow. So I am Umm Ghada, mother of Ghada. It is a sign of joy and respect to call a parent by their kunia [kinship]. In Baghdad, I am famous now as Umm Ghada because I do live here in yellow trailer outside Amaria bomb shelter since the bombing 13 February 1991."
Ms. Raffo says some of her characters are based on real people. Others are composites.
"The Bedouin character, for instance, is based on someone I know," she explains. "The sort of political character that is an expatriate in London is based on someone I know. What I have also done is I have combined some psyches and characters like the woman who lives in the bomb shelter. I was at a bomb shelter when I was in Iraq that was bombed in 1991. I also did some research into the woman who did set up the trailer there and does take people through."
Despite their differences and their suffering, Ms. Raffo says her nine women are united by their spirit. It is that spirit, she says, that guided her, not politics.
"A lot of people ask me, 'What are the politics of the play? Where do you stand? Why should I have a stand? Why can I not tell all of these aspects and allow you to live with the confusion of that?'" she notes.
Ms. Raffo says her goal is to encourage audiences to think about the complexity of Iraq instead of viewing it in black and white. If the critics are correct, she has achieved that goal.