- The Washington Times - Friday, October 6, 2006

Performer and writer Heather Raffo puts a human, divinely feminine face on the effects of the Iraqi conflict with “9 Parts of Desire,” a one-woman show at Arena that brings the war home with heart-rending depth and clarity.

Miss Raffo, a native Midwesterner born of an Iraqi father and an American mother, first conceived the play after visiting Iraq between the wars in 1993. There, she connected with relatives and also collected the stories of Iraqi women, including an artist whose work was displayed in the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad. Amid the gigantic portraits of Saddam Hussein, Miss Raffo discovered in a back gallery a painting titled “Savagery” depicting a nude woman grasping a tree. “9 Parts” came out of her discoveries about the artist, as well as other interviews with the women of Iraq. It premiered in 2003, but Miss Raffo has updated and refined the piece for the Washington run.

The title is taken from Shi’a leader Ali ibn Abu Taleb’s quote, “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” “9 Parts” explores sex — in the sense of both gender and carnality — and what it means to be a mother, a wife, a lover, a daughter or a sister in a country riven by violent oppression and war. These women live in secret, concealing their bodies in long scarves and the “abaya,” the traditional Iraqi black robes, hiding their thoughts and dreams for fear of persecution and censure.

Miss Raffo uses the abaya to define and liberate her characters. Racing around Antje Ellermann’s bombed-out ruin of a set, she forcefully portrays Iraqis from a cross section of social classes, religions, and ethnicities. For the Mulaya, an Arabic professional keener, the robe signifies mourning, yet for the sexy and earthy artist Layal, the abaya ripples from her shoulders like a painter’s smock or a glamorous shawl. For the Westernized characters, the abaya disappears completely, replaced by the unisex costume of a loose tunic and trousers.

Within the space of 90 minutes, Miss Raffo takes us into a female world largely hidden from view. The finely wrought portraits range from a queen-sized, lusty Bedouin who is unlucky in love but merrily resilient to a darting, hardscrabble seller of “antiquities” who has seen it all. There is an aging leftist intellectual living in London, knocking back scotches and limping from injuries endured in prison, who describes Iraqi torture methods with harsh, unsettling matter-of-factness.

Speaking of torture, the indecencies committed at Abu Ghraib seem amateurish compared to the methods used in Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s family members and henchmen: infants placed in bags with starving cats, for example, or covering women with honey and looking on as Dobermans devour them. Gang rape is commonplace, with the use of electronic instruments adding a ghastly element. The horrors don’t stop there. An exhausted doctor tells of the effects of radiation contamination in Basra, with grotesquely disfigured babies and girls as young as nine with breast and multiple cancers.

The grimness accretes to an almost intolerable degree, and the piece risks veering into tragedy overdose when a woman recounts the American bombing of the Amiriyya bomb shelter, describing the outlines of the vaporized bodies etched onto the stone and the hair and flesh still clinging to the basement walls.

An American-Iraqi surrogate for Miss Raffo is the weakest character in the piece, with her dithering about while watching CNN for hours on end in New York City. This self-indulgent subplot does have a poignant twist, when her Iraqi relatives desperately try to contact her after hearing about September 11 — from one pile of rubble to another, the family offers their sympathies. Some grasp of Iraqi language and culture is necessary to fully appreciate the play, and perhaps a glossary in the playbill would have been helpful.

In “9 Parts,” Americans are treated alternately as destroyers, teen idols, or magnificent adolescents from a young and dominant country. The point of the play is not how Iraqis view Americans, but to see how war and tyranny ravage the souls and bodies of Iraqi women but cannot completely silence their voices.

***

WHAT: “9 Parts of Desire” by Heather Raffo

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 12.

TICKETS: $47 to $66

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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