There's a reason that Heather Raffo's multicharacter monologue play about Iraqi women, 9 Parts of Desire,was a sold-out show for nine months in Manhattan: In a time of stultifyingly safe, increasingly desperately commercial theater, it does not sell out. Though flawed, it thrillingly gives voice to women silenced by their culture and by the war news blackout imposed by U.S. authorities and the sheer danger of the place. Taking over in Seattle Rep's production the role Raffo created, Najla Said turns in a performance packed with passion and glinting with wit, skillfully abetted by the show's New York director, Joanna Settle.
9 Parts of Desire Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Center, 206-443-2222, www.seattlerep.org. $10–$46. Various times. Tues.–Sun., through Sat., April 15.
An Iraqi-American from Michigan with deep family roots in Baghdad, Raffo was moved to write the piece after a 1993 trip to Baghdad's Saddam Art Center, where she was impressed by a lyrical female nude on exhibit and, upon trying to find the artist, discovered she'd just been killed by American bombers. Over the following 11 years, she conducted interviews with living Iraqi artists, wives, doctors, and exiles, coaxing them to confess sometimes dangerous confidences. As one character in the play acidulously observes, "Iraqis know not to open their mouths, not even for the dentist!"
But they opened their hearts to Raffo, whose characters—presented in serial monologues—won't shut up for a moment. The most conspicuous is Layal, the artist Raffo invented to go with the painting she saw. Layal is a pragmatic collaborator, vain and flirty, a bit cynical, a lot sardonic, unapologetically hedonistic, bold and defiant in the face of Islamic male oppression, inclined to splashy theatrical gestures. Her jaunty horniness is meant to help justify the show's title, which refers to an Islamic sage's comment about how when God divvied up sexual passion, women got nine parts and men got a measly one. I guess this was true in a pre-Viagra era, but Raffo's show doesn't really have all that much to say about desire or male-female dynamics. It's a catchy title, but misleading. Nine or So Dames Screwed by Fate would be more accurate.
Layal's story is somehow supposed to connect the various characters Said morphs into in the intermissionless evening. It doesn't succeed in doing so. We discover that she dies in a raid—a starving neighbor hawking her last painting cracks, "How smart is this bomb if it bombed a painter?"—but her fate isn't really part of any causational narrative thread. All the connections between the play's characters and themes are so sketchy as to be barely perceptible. Some of the characters blend into each other, and none changes in a satisfying way. The show is held together not by plot or character, but by the verbal razzle and headlong momentum, the extreme importance of the material, and the considerable magnetism of the actress.
Still, you want to meet these people and hear them out. A plump, jolly bedouin dishes the dirt on her exciting love life. A Western-educated physician relates a grisly litany of symptoms caused by war pollution and uranium-tipped bullets kids wear around their necks as amulets: headless babies, prepubescent girls who discover the budding breasts they're so proud of are actually cancers.
The second-best character after the artist is a teenybopping 'N Sync fan— Said really nails the part, and the kid's whimsical mood swings perfectly fit Raffo's non-goal-oriented writing style. A disillusioned former Communist Iraqi in London outdoes Raffo in cynicism, pickled in political bitterness and the Johnny Walker Red she swills nonstop. An American Iraqi girl watches the war on TV, hunting the screen in horror for her old-world relations amid bombs bursting in air. Even to a Western ear, Said's symphony of Iraqi accents delightfully summons a Dickensian range of human types. They also represent a rainbow of opinions on the war, America, and Iraq's fate—the playwright wisely avoids agitprop. Said's late father, Edward, was America's leading Palestinian intellectual, and her stage work is informed by a similar animating intellectual anger. She humanizes people we can't imagine; she makes the Other ours.
I wish I could give 9 Parts an unqualified encomium, but it's all parts and no whole. It's supposed to be akin to an Iraqi mosaic, but it's no more a mosaic than Iraq is—it's just a pile of colorful, fascinating fragments smashed to bits by history.