It was more than a dozen years ago that actor Heather Raffo, whose family is from Iraq, recognized a void of female Iraqi protagonists in American theater. That propelled her to write and perform her Off-Broadway show, 9 Parts of Desire, earning her raves for her portrayal of nine Iraqi women.
“When I wrote 9 Parts of Desire, there were things I wanted to see and articulate on stage that didn’t exist yet. There wasn’t an Iraqi, female protagonist in the English language in the theater. Had there been, I may have never turned to writing,” Raffo says. “Still, this story draws on so much of my life. There just aren’t that many other mid-40s, Middle Eastern, let alone Iraqi, characters, so it makes sense that I would be an actor right for playing this.”
Raffo’s latest work draws on the personal stories of Arab American women and their response to A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen’s classic drama of one mother’s quest to balance her duty with her identity. Titled Noura, it is onstage now, produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company, and part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival.
Noura challenges standard notions about modern marriage and motherhood through a portrait of Iraqi immigrants living in New York. As Noura (Raffo) and her husband Tareq (Nabil Elouahabi) get ready to celebrate their first Christmas holiday together as U.S. citizens, they welcome a young Iraqi refugee named Maryam (Dahlia Azama) into their home.
“It’s on the eve of celebrating Christmas with new American passports in hand, and this family feels they’ve arrived,” Raffo says. “The arrival of the visitor upends Christmas dinner and the family is forced to confront their choices and [their] past.”
Raffo describes the genesis of the play as coming from “a collision of three different events or perspectives”; being a mother of young children, ISIS taking control of Mosul, the city her father was born in, and a grant she received from the Doris Duke Foundation to work on theater within the Arab-American community in New York.
“The refugee crisis would be a fourth defining event, as I do have some family members [who are] part of the wave of refugees,” Raffo says. “I had been processing since the Iraq war, how identity changes due to these different traumas and different thresholds that people go through and that’s something I revisit in most of my work.”
The playwright felt people were relating to being Iraqi or identifying as Iraqi in 2014, -15, -16, -17, than they were in 2008 or even before the war.
closes March 11, 2018
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“I had quite a few family members still living in Iraq at the start of the war. My father had nine brothers and sisters and they all had kids, and they had kids, so it was a big contingent of family who saw themselves as part of the makeup of the identity of that country,” Raffo says. “Now, in 2018, I can say that perspective has truly shifted. I now have two cousins in the country and everyone else is scattered. Going from about 100 people to two over the course of a decade is quite a dramatic shift.”
That set the stage for this play, as one of the main themes in Noura are the different thresholds from which identity itself takes a massive shift, leaving people feeling quite lost.
“It was something I experienced hugely in the group of women I was teaching with the grant, and that converged with young 20-year-old, Middle Eastern-American women who are really bound from two cultures and trying to find themselves in both and they don’t want to walk away from either,” she says. “They want to live as Americans and as Middle Eastern women; that’s something we explored and discussed in these theatrical writings we did.”
During the workshop, the participants read A Doll’s House, tackling themes in the play that spurred some of their own writing and reflecting on the story because of Nora Helmer’s awakening. This was an emotion that the young women in the group had already experienced.
“We were all post-Noras; we knew what it was to go out on a massive limb and take the leap and figure out what comes next and how to make a life,” Raffo says.
The play is also about Raffo, a mother in a modern American marriage. And though she has a great husband and fantastic kids, she admits she finds it difficult sometimes.
“I felt that there weren’t a lot of plays or places I could turn to as a person in a successful marriage,” she says. “It still felt like there were times I was drowning. There is still stuff we are not talking about as women. This could be so hard to balance—balancing motherhood with how I’m supposed to move through the world as a Western woman.”
Although Raffo stars in Noura, (as she also did with 9 Parts of Desire), she notes she has no problem with writing plays for others.
“I’ve written things that I haven’t been in and I really like it. It’s much easier. It’s so super to be in a process as a writer and watch other people realize it and just do notes related to writing. It’s a really stunning path,” she says. “The challenge of performing also is its own other thing. I wouldn’t say it’s hard for me to let go—I think my director would say I was a very generous collaborator. Just in previews week, we’ve cut half the ending and that’s quite painful as a writer but I am standing up there on stage having to try things at the hands of a director.”
Still, she says when she did 9 Parts of Desire, the biggest thrill was when she stopped performing it and traveled around the country watching others in the role and being part of the deep community conversations.