Painters. Bomb survivors. Mothers. Lovers. These are all faces of Iraqi women, but are often hidden by veils or obscured in a sea of news reports and political commentary. Playwright Heather Raffo seeks to expose these faces and the voices that belong to them in her powerful, monologue-driven meditation on women’s experiences in the Iraq war, Nine Parts of Desire, currently being presented by the University of Oklahoma Lab Theatre.
In literary impact, Nine Parts feels disjointed. Themes become muddled just like the chaos of the war. But in emotional impact, it packs a solid punch. Fine acting and technical design from OU School of Drama students bring the play into the lives and hearts of the audience, making all nine women unforgettable. Their stories are hidden no longer.
Heather Raffo, in titling her work, drew upon the phrase attributed to an early imam, “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one part to men.” Out of a longing to connect with her own half-Iraqi heritage, Raffo felt driven to create the play to respond to the horrors that Iraqi women have silently endured.
Thus, in Nine Parts we meet not only the women who stayed in the country against all odds but also those who have escaped to the West, such as the matriarchal Huda in London, and the worried American who religiously watches TV coverage of the war and prays for her relatives. Raffo’s script is eye-opening in its honesty. All of the characters have a piece of each other and of Raffo; as Layla the painter relates, “I cannot separate myself from them.”
The OU production, directed by Alissa Millar, finds its greatest strength in its intimacy. Free-flowing, conspiratorial monologues are accentuated by skilled blocking, and the confined space of the Old Science Hall theatre makes it all seem more immediate. When Brooke Reynolds as Mullaya wanders into the ghostly blue light that reflects off of white plastic tarps and broken archways, her character is obviously familiar with the space, but at the same time, detached from it.
All of the women in the play have learned to cling onto one intangible thing: survival. Layla, played by drama junior Tiffany Mack, survives through her art. Amal, a laughing Bedouin played by drama freshman Brynne Frauenhoffer, survives through her love, but even there she is confused. She and the others share a realization that everything they have trusted about civilization, humanity, and romance is suddenly in pieces.
As the play progresses, stories get layered on top of each other, some of them more effectively than others. Layla’s speeches get long, for in her job as a painter, she feels obligated to put on a show for her listeners. Much more refreshing are the unflinching reflections of London-dwelling Huda (drama senior Clarice Diers).
With weary grace, she sips her Scotch and relates in graphic detail the way soldiers tortured women back in Iraq. Solemn Umm Ghada (drama junior Anna Fearheiley) guides us through the remains of a bomb shelter where her daughter was burned alive. Both are strong despite their trials. It’s the American, played by drama sophomore Taylor Schackmann, who is on the verge of falling to pieces. Her speeches sometimes feel forced and shrill, but she also delivers one of the play’s most gripping moments when she screams, “I love you!” over and over.
Strong technical design also transports the audience into the characters’ shattered world. A crier’s haunting call echoes throughout scene changes and occasionally during the monologues. Water drips from an ornate, blue-tiled fountain that is flanked by earth-toned pillars. Design junior Chris Fitzer’s multipurpose set is striking and beautiful in its simplicity, especially when paired with the soft ambers and watery blues that anchor design junior Brad Gray’s lighting.
The blues echo the water theme that runs through the plot; the harsh reds on the plastic tarps are reminiscent of blood. Occasionally, the blackouts run long, but there is nothing to take away from the total immersion that the play provides. No longer captives themselves, the women hold the audience captive with the clink of their jewelry and the toss of their scarves.
Their questions probe the audience: how do you stay sane in the midst of inhuman behavior? How do you live through a revolution you don’t want? No matter what your beliefs on the Iraq war, Nine Parts of Desire will challenge those preconceptions and push away the politics for a deeper, human side.
The stories are filled with violence and strong language and fear. But the resilience that shines through makes this play applicable and necessary viewing for all adults. Heather Raffo’s script might stumble in a few places, but it’s clear that this production is directed with excellence and acted with compassion. Layal, Huda, Umm Ghada—they all open up their hearts before the audience. You can’t help but be changed.