We know there are casualties of war beyond the dead and wounded. We see images on TV of crying women and children, stepping through the chaos of crumbling buildings and burned out cars and families carrying the dead and wounded on crude stretchers, wailing and lamenting their losses in a crowd of mourners. We see them, and we shake our heads. But we don't know them.
Now onstage at Live Theater Workshop, Heather Raffo's one-woman play, "9 Parts of Desire," allows us to come closer to a greater awareness of the impact of decades of warring—with fellow countrymen, with cruel dictatorial regimes, with the fallout from American "liberators." More specifically, we get a glimpse of the women, specifically in Iraq, who have not only endured a religious culture which devalues them, but have suffered through decades involving the incursion of American forces, in the first Gulf War in the 1990s and in the speciously justified conflict imposed by the Bush administration after 9/11.
Lori Hunt personifies nine women, whose stories are varied but equally disturbing in various ways, which weave in and out of each other in short vignettes. It's an awesome undertaking, and Hunt excels.
Raffo, an American with an Iraqi father, has said that the first Gulf War was "the most defining moment of my life." She travelled to Iraq in 1993, and when she visited a modern art museum in Baghdad, she was struck that there were predominately portraits of Saddam Hussein. Then, in a back room, she discovered a "haunting painting of a nude woman clinging to a barren tree." She says that over a period of 10 years, the photo she took of that painting was an inspiration to try to discover "what it must mean to be an Iraqi woman now."
She travelled extensively in Iraq, interviewing numerous women, gaining their trust. Although none of the characters in the play are specific people, they are individuals created from the dozens of women she met and spoke with. Raffo herself performed her one act play initially, and it has had numerous productions since it premiered in 2003.
The title refers to a translation of a little-known saying, or "hadith," from a Muslim text: "God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave 9 parts to women and 1 to men." The painting which inspired Raffo's work was by Layla Attar, an artist, killed the year Raffo confronted her painting in an American bombing ordered by President Bill Clinton, supposedly in response to an assassination attempt on President George H.W. Bush. Attar created a mosaic on the floor of that President Bush in the lobby of Baghdad's Al Rasheed Hotel, which was later damaged in various attacks and was demolished by American soldiers years later.
Raffo has made her, or a fictionalized version of her, a character we return to several times. She actually held a privileged place in Saddam's regime, painting portraits of him, and was the only artist allowed to paint nudes. She was also involved with some of Saddam's sons, not necessarily willingly because really there was no choice. Her character shares with us a penetrating portrait of the terror which reigned during Saddam's control, and reveals in herself perhaps a bit of guilt that in some ways it could be construed that she was actually complicit in that horrible time.
Through Hunt's skill we meet the others: a Bedouin woman who, with a degree of charm and humor, describes her unfortunate relationships with men; an older woman who was an activist but now lives in London, who wonders why there was not more intervention from the U.S. when Saddam was grabbing power; a doctor who sees horrible birth defects caused by environmental poisons; a young girl who loves singing along with N'Sync videos and has come to know the difference in the explosions of different kinds of bombs.
LTW's production style is simple. Hunt distinguishes between the characters economically, with slight changes in physical attributes, accents, and differing drapings of a black scarf. Most of the time it is absolutely clear what characters are referenced, even as Hunt moves quickly with the transformations. For 80 minutes, she creates seamlessly a swath of women to whom she is totally committed and embodies sympathetically.
The play itself presents a few obstacles. It is rather poetic in nature, particularly in its first and final moments, and it takes a few minutes initially for the audience to catch onto the lay of the land. There is no real dramatic arc, so there isn't a typical sense of storytelling. In addition, we see these characters in a series of monologues, most of which are fairly brief, and although transitions are smooth, we don't have the luxury of becoming increasingly settled into their stories. Co-directors Glen Coffman and Sabian Trout are right to make sure the pace doesn't drag and that changes run smoothly, but I think there is plenty of room to give us a little time to breathe between these transitions, even perhaps within the monologues themselves, to give us a chance to let these women sink more fully into our understanding and our sympathy.
But without question, Hunt gives an excellent performance, and within the context Raffo gives us, we do begin to get a deeper understanding of the faces we see on TV, and an appreciation of their lives, whether it's universal troubles in love or survival or trying to build a life from the ruins.