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    Nine Parts of Desire

    Gulf War gulf

    In the politically charged morality battle over the Iraqi invasion, the humanity has gone sadly missing. Heather Raffo hones in on it in the remarkable one-woman play "Nine Parts of Desire."


    For the Western world, "Nine Parts of Desire" is what happens when shock — occasioned by the now-familiar tome of news, films, and other media depicting the plight of women in the Middle East — graduates to the next level. Combine this with assiduous research, jaw-dropping acting, lucky timing, and the steadfast refusal to deal categorically with a complex political and cultural phenomenon — and you have not so much a play as a revelation with the heat and throb of a fever dream, without intermission.

    Written and performed by: Heather Raffo.
    Directed by: Joanna Settle.

    Related links: Official site
    Manhattan Ensemble Theatre
    55 Mercer St. (one block north of Canal)
    Previews start: Sept. 24, 2004
    Opens: Oct. 9, 2004
    Varied schedule; generally, Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 3 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m.
    (212) 239-6200

    The title is extracted from a Shia maxim: "God created sexual desire in ten parts; he gave nine parts to women and one to men." The title is alluring but insufficient: the play speaks more to individuality than desire, more to the coping of people (yes, all female) under the endless bombs of horror and exigency than to the relations between the sexes, per se. Although mention is made of beheaded prostitutes and babies ravaged by starving cats, the play is much more than a set piece dedicated to Saddam's victims; in fact, it's not dedicated to victims at all. Under Raffo's pen and agile performance, women don't sit and suffer — they orate, they detract, they lust, they resist, they opine, they express their egos...and they (mostly) survive. All of which may leave you stunned.

    "Nine Parts" opens on a stage dominated by a wedge of water framed in tile. This represents the Tigris River, where an old woman has come to bury worn souls. It's not literal, although it seems so: she is submerging sandals (get it? "worn soles") — a lonely image, even if her poetic elegies are too fraught with meaning to be absorbed in one sitting:

    Nine Parts of Desire  
    When the grandson of Genghis Khan
    Burned all the books in Baghdad
    The river ran black with ink
    What color is this river now?
    It runs the color of old shoes
    The color of distances
    The color of soles torn and worn
    This river is the color of worn soles

    Before we get comfortable, the woman has shrugged off her abaya (flowing black cape), and positioned herself on the other side of the stage, paintbrush in hand. We're introduced to Layal, the notorious Iraqi painter of nudes, who was favored by Saddam and refuses to leave her homeland, although the constant bombing — which booms realistically near and far — makes her feel like "an animal." Layal is the central character whose story served as Raffo's original inspiration.

    Next, Raffo portrays an obese Bedouin Iraqi whose brief marriage to an Israeli from her tribe ended in heartbreak for reasons unrelated to the political differences between their countries. After that, a doctor treating children experiencing an outbreak of illness occasioned by violence. An Iraqi-born New Yorker obsessed with CNN for news of her family members. A Saddam-hating emigrant whose forgiveness of the invasion compromises a lifetime of anti-war demonstrations.

    And on and on it goes. The 30-something Raffo spent 11 years collecting stories and diversity and character tics on four continents. Where she found time to train for a performance that surges with energy and fluidity eludes me. But her depictions are solid arpeggios, skillfully linking hysteria with lyricism, youth with old age, ignorance with bald grief, and in the process voicing something that got lost in all the posturing during our own presidential debates: the plaintive cry of freedom.

    OCTOBER 23, 2004

    Reader comments on Nine Parts of Desire:

  • Raffo's training   from A fan of Raffo's, Nov 24, 2004

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