Once you’ve seen “9 Parts of Desire,” Heather Raffo’s remarkable one-woman play at Arena Stage, you won’t view news accounts from Iraq in the same way.
Raffo portrays nine women – eight Iraqis and one American – who offer different perspectives on the reports that have become so familiar to us: the cruelty of Saddam’s regime, the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad, the looting in the war’s early days, the increasing sectarian violence of today.
Since 2003, Raffo has performed the “9 Parts of Desire” in Edinburgh, London, New York and Los Angeles. The Arena production, which is directed by Joanna Settle, features updates to the script, which Raffo based on interviews with Iraqi women both in their homeland and elsewhere.
Her characters represent different ages, classes and levels of sophistication and education, and a range of political views, but each has found her own way to survive.
As she wades in the waters of the Tigris, one woman reminds us of the long history of her country – the site of the Garden of Eden – and of the many conflicts that its people have endured.
We meet the exile in London, who recalls her imprisonment in 1963 following the Baathist takeover. War, she tells us, is against everything she believes, but she welcomes this one because what preceded it was so horrible. People who have lived under such cruelty can’t liberate themselves, she says.
A young doctor, working under unspeakable conditions, is haunted by the increasing numbers of birth defects and cases of cancer and by her own pregnancy.
Raffo, the daughter of an Iraqi father and American mother, traveled to her father’s homeland as a young child. Iraq’s wars with Iran and the U.S. prevented her from visiting again until 1993, when she forged strong bonds with uncles, aunts and cousins.
She draws on her own life for her American character, a New Yorker who receives frantic phone calls from Iraqi relatives following the 9/11 attacks. We see her watching the bombings of the war’s early days on television, looking for a glimpse of a familiar street and some sign that family members are safe.
Wrapping herself in shawls or an abaya, Raffo masterfully transforms herself into an old woman, an abandoned Bedouin wife, a sophisticated artist and a young girl mad about American pop music.
Wandering Antje Ellermann’s set with its sandbags, rubble, scaffolding, mosaics and pool of water – representing the Tigris – she is able to evoke the different worlds of her characters.
Pointing a flashlight to various spots in the theater, she becomes a grieving mother giving visitors a tour of the site of a bomb shelter where her children and hundreds of others perished when it was hit by a bunker-busting bomb during the 1991 Gulf War.
She strides confidently across the stage, paintbrush in hand, as the sensual Layla, a well-known artist under Saddam’s regime, who has found a way to keep her artistic freedom. She revels in her unconventional choices, but eventually she reveals the high price she has paid for that freedom.
Among the most touching characters is a young girl living alone with her mother. We meet her as she dances with abandon to her N’Sync video, only to have the power fail yet again. We learn that her older brothers have died as “martyrs” in Saddam’s army and her father disappeared after she inadvertently repeated his anti-regime comment at school. Her mother used to go to work every day, the girl tells us, but now she goes only to the market and always veiled and always in the company of a male relative. “Women get stolen,” the child says. School is a thing of the past for the child, but she has learned to identify weapons by their sounds. She spends her time reading her father’s journals and watching television. She feels sorry for the people she sees on “Oprah,” people who have such hard lives, she says. “But by some miracle, their lives seem to get better.”
Through her memorable characters, Raffo puts a human face on the war. She paints vivid portraits of woman whose lives have been irrevocably altered and whose hopes and dreams we recognize.
WHEN YOU GO
* “9 Parts of Desire”
* Through Nov. 12
* Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.E., Washington, D.C,
* Tickets: $47-$66
* (202) 488-3300 or arenastage.org