Friday, May 09, 2008

Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire

Years ago, Alice Roosevelt Longworth in an interview said that she was asked about all the wonderful things she saw in the years she was in the White House with her father’s administration and her cousin’s. She described a favorite poem in which a salamander living in the court of Nebuchadnezzar is asked to describe all the great things he had seen in the great king’s court. Upon reflection the lizard replies, “I didn’t notice any of it. I was concentrating on the flies.” I’m sometimes reminded that I am kin to that salamander. Perhaps we all are.

Last night I joined some friends and attended Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. I went, rather oblivious as to what we were going to see, and I came away realizing how big the world is and how little I really know of it here in my sheltered Oak Park, Illinois, life.

Raffo’s play is a one-woman show of 9 monologues, inspired by a 1993 trip to Iraq. During that trip she saw huge portraits of Saddham Hussein and a painting of a nude woman as a tree. Wanting to learn more about the artist, she began interviewing her and then other Iraqi women. Their stories were woven into the 90 minute show. Raffo portrays, among others, a painter, a Bedouin, a woman who mourns the deaths of her family in a bunker, a doctor, and an expatriot living in London. Each character is vividly drawn with her own posture and appearance, verbal cadences and dialects. Raffo is amazing, often funny, often heart-breaking.

The set Raffo moves around on consists of slabs of broken concrete, a partial Iraqi doorway boarded up, pieces of mosaic on the wall and mosaic patterned lineolium on the floor, a pool of water representing the river, bright yellow sandbags, and other debris, all surrounded by bare scaffolding, mood lighting, and huge plastic tarps. It is a world of both survival and destruction.

I was amazed by what I learned. One of the descriptions that astonished me were the genetic defects Raffo’s doctor describes—children born with two heads, ten year old girls developing breast cancer. [In 1991, according to an online source, the United States and Persian Gulf War allies blasted vehicles with armor-piercing shells made of depleted uranium as the Iraqis retreated from Kuwait.] Some sources speak of Iraq as another Chernobyl. Another source speaks of a baby with a head growing out its head and others with intestines growing outside the body.

Another character describes how Saddam’s henchmen had to learn to torture and cull crueltry from watching films. Torture, she says, is a learned behavior. She describes how young girls were kidnapped, raped, called prostitutes and then beheaded. Another character describes how an imprisioned woman is punished for menstruating by being hung upside down. Her three year old child is brought to outside her cell and put in a bag with hungry cats. The babies screams are recorded to play for the father who is locked away in another cell.

All evening I was reminded of Vladmir’s line in “Waiting for Godot”:

Was I sleeping while others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow when I wake, or think I do, what will I say of today? That with Estragon my friend I waited for Godot. … But in all that what truth will there be? We give birth astride of the grave, the light gleams an instant and then it’s night once more. I can’t go. What have I said?

I consider myself a literate person, but how could all that epic suffering have not penetrated my safe cocoon.

One of my friends commented as we left, “I feel assaulted.” I did too… and emotionally drained. But if I were to judge how much I learned about the Iraqi female experience, the performance was an incredible experience. The show has only a run until May 18, but I urge you to experience it. If not, check out Raffo’s webpage and get the book or audio version of the play. I am definitely considering it as one of the works to teach next year.