Early in “9 Parts of Desire,” opening March 5 at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, a character named Layal, an artist, explains her many self-portraits: “So it is not me alone/it is all of us/but I am the body that takes the experience.” Her words aptly describe this one-actor portrait, written and originally performed by Iraqi-American playwright Heather Raffo. Though the play bears the same name as the book by Geraldine Brooks, that’s about the only similarity. Brooks’ book, based on the six years she lived in the Middle East, includes sketches of Arabic women of a number of nationalities. In contrast, Raffo’s play gives one voice to nine women-eight Iraqi, one American woman-of varying ages and social conditions who express their fears, anguish and hope in the shadow of war.
If you go:
What: 9 Parts of Desire
Where: Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, 818 S. 8th St., Minneapolis
Tickets: 877-44-STAGE or
Actor Kate Eifrig plays all nine characters. To prepare for the show, she worked with Carla Steen who, as one of the Guthrie’s resident dramaturgs, gathers historical and contemporary research to give actors a better understanding of their roles. “[I tried] to find material … to help give context to the world that Kate is entering,” she explained. “Whether it’s other women who have similar stories or looking into actual events that are talked about in the script like the [American bombing of the Amiriyya shelter], it’s putting a very specific historical touch on [the play] as opposed to just the artistic sensibility that Heather has brought.”
Most of Raffo’s characters, such as Umm Ghada, who hauntingly describes her daughter’s death at the shelter, are composites of ordinary, anonymous women she met in Iraq and whose stories might otherwise remain untold. The sole American is recognizable as Raffo herself, caught between Western life and Iraqi heritage. Layal is also based on a real person-a prominent artist killed during an American air raid in 1993. She represents the women who did not survive to tell their own tales. “She is the heart of the play,” Steen said. “[Raffo] was helping her to say things that she would imagine Layal would want to say.” In the play, these women reveal their deepest emotions: a weary doctor’s daily witness to the physical agonies of war, a Bedouin woman’s hopeful pursuit of new love, and a passionate artist’s unapologetic ode to choices made for survival.
It’s an enormous challenge for one actor to portray nine disparate personalities, but Steen believes the one-woman format is ideal. “The idea that in some ways these characters are all related can be conveyed more clearly if they’re all performed by one person. In the end, it’s more rewarding for an audience to see how [Kate has] made them all distinct and yet they embody something universal,” she said.
For Eifrig, that universal quality is the desire to be heard. “[What] drives a person to madness the fastest is fear of invisibility, of disappearing into nothingness,” she said. “These women don’t exist without an audience listening to them.” She is undaunted by performing a work imbued with its creator’s personal history. “My interpretation is from where my heart is and why I care about it and why I think it’s important,” Eifrig explained. “The gift of being able to say ‘Here, use your words’ is what I believe we should be doing.”
In describing the play, Raffo wrote that “9 Parts of Desire” is ultimately “about the need for feminine strength as a necessary part of any culture’s endurance.” And Iraq’s history is certainly one of endurance. The play is described as “a meditation on the ancient, the modern and the feminine,” Steen explained, “The ancientness gives [Iraqis] a permanence because their modernness has been consistent but terrifying [under Saddam Hussein]. But the long years of history preceding [the present] provide a real stability. All of this is seen through the eyes of just the women … who get to tell us about this ancient and this modern world they’re living in.” She pointed out that while modern Iraq is depicted as a place of destruction, it’s also believed to be the biblical Garden of Eden, and that the current American presence is just the most recent among centuries of occupations and invasions that Iraqis have withstood.
Steen hopes the play will give audiences a different view of Iraq. “If it helps people understand better the other side of the war [and gives] some sort of real humanity to a four-letter word that appears in headlines all the time … that would be pretty terrific.”
Eifrig recalled her own first reaction to “9 Parts of Desire.” “I was struck by how these characters are allowed to be human first, people first,” she said. “There is something about [the script that] is fluid, that has a lot of messy endings that are just allowed to be, [to have] this discontent.”
Will the audience be discontented with the play’s unresolved stories? That, said Eifrig, is up to them. “It’s whatever they take out to the world after that. That’s the story’s continuation.”