These are the stories of the women in 9 Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo’s extraordinary drama, which burrows into the hearts of nine Iraqi women as they try to carry on in a country ravaged by despots and mutilated by war. In an Empty Spaces Theatre Co. production, director John DiDonna and his cast don’t bring every one of Raffo’s characters into sharp focus. But as the women tell their stories, those stories come together to create a fabric of emotion – suffering, outrage, love, pride – that envelops them as surely as the scarves that cover their heads.
Raffo, an Iraqi-American, began to conceive of 9 Parts of Desire after a family visit to Iraq in 1993. She first performed it as a one-woman show in London and Edinburgh 10 years later and then in New York in 2004, where it had a nine-month run. As the daughter of an Iraqi, she has said, she was able to get Iraqi women to open up to her. And as the daughter of an American, she heard fears and secrets those Iraqis might not have shared with their own countrywomen.
The result is a play of contrasts – full of strength and ambivalence, of characters who want to die and characters who will live no matter what. Sometimes their stories blend a little too readily. But it’s a potent mix.
In the little Mandell Studio Theater, the play takes place on a nearly empty stage, a square platform with the audience on all four sides, a series of pottery bowls – one large, the others smaller – snaking like a river off to the side of the house. That river is real to Mullaya (Leander Suleiman), who calls it a “great dark sea of desire” and feels the history that has unfolded on its banks: “The garden of Eden – it was here,” she says.
Shrouded in black, Mullaya stands as silent witness to the women who follow her. A privileged artist (Leesa Halstead) thinks of leaving the country but can’t bring herself to go; she is haunted by the fates of friends and acquaintances, but staying is her way of surviving. A Bedouin woman (Olivia Horn) abandons two husbands in search of freedom, but when she finds it she’s still in thrall to a man who doesn’t love her. A teenager (Sarah Villegas) complains that she can’t go to school, but it turns out that her family is suffering a loss far worse than that.
As performed here by nine actresses, Raffo’s play perhaps loses some of its raw power: One or two of these characters are snippets, nothing more, and a few are not as fully developed as others. Yet the cumulative effect is still there, and some of the characters can shake you to the core. Stasha Boyd, still and dignified, plays the victim of a horrific bombing who has renamed herself after one of her dead children: “My full name – it died with them,” she says.
Marcie Schwalm plays a doctor who walks forthrightly among the mutilated victims of uranium poisoning, who insists that death is better than a life like that. Halstead carries herself with the assurance of a woman who has always had what she wants, but that assurance disappears as the bombs keep falling. “What is safe?” she asks. “There is no safe.”
A little of Raffo’s drama may be more gruesome than you want to hear: This is a land where torture and rape have been a part of daily life. Still, 9 Parts of Desire (which also features Mikki Scanlon Kriekard, Emily Killian and Heather Godwin) brings flesh and blood to a people who, in this long war, have seemed only shadows to those of us far from the horrors. Raffo makes these women neither one thing nor another, but a mixture of all things – passionate, frightened, broken, proud. “When you love like an Iraqi woman,” one of them says, “you love like you cannot breathe.”
‘9 Parts of Desire’
What: Empty Spaces Theatre Co. production of Heather Raffo drama.
Where: Mandell Studio Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Friday June 18-Monday June 21, Friday June 25 and Saturday June 26, 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday June 27.
Cost: $20 general, $15 seniors and students.
Photo of Marcie Schwalm by Kristen Wheeler (khphotographics).