Survival, humanity, and unity in Nine Parts of Desire

The Maggie Tree's production of Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire. Photo credit Marc J. Chalifoux.

The Maggie Tree’s production of Heather Raffo’s Nine Parts of Desire. Photo credit Marc J. Chalifoux.

The Maggie Tree’s upcoming production of Heather Raffo‘s Nine Parts of Desire is a great example of the enduring power of art and its resonance across time and place.

The idea for Nine Parts of Desire came to playwright Heather Raffo on a 1993 trip to Baghdad, where she visited the Saddam Art Centre and saw Layla al-Attar‘s painting “Savagery”. Over the next decade, Heather interviewed Iraqi women about their experiences living in a country during war times. Opening in 2003, Nine Parts of Desire is a look at what it means to be a woman in a country at war and, The Maggie Tree says, “what it is to be a human in a globalising world that is plagued by the ramifications of political power struggles.”

The Maggie Tree, an Edmonton theatre company supporting women in the arts, will be bringing Nine Parts of Desire to the Varscona Theatre April 6 – 15.

Vanessa Sabourin, co-founder of The Maggie Tree and Nine Parts of Desire Director, says it’s been a winding road to bringing this show to Edmonton’s stages, having first been shown the script by Wayne Paquette (Blarney Productions) shortly after the play’s première. The company decided not to produce it at the time, feeling there was a lot of work about 9/11 and the Iraq war, however, when they were searching for a show to do in 2017, it felt right to do this play. Vanessa explains, “It was right at a time when there were a few attacks that ISIL was being credited for and there was all the conversation about whether or not we should let refugees into our country. Trump was running his presidential campaign and starting divisive conversations and in Canada, there were all of these conversations about Indigenous concerns – not having proper water, the rate of suicide, and missing and murdered Aboriginal women weren’t being investigated. It felt like the play really resonated with our world and what is happening. The play is set in a context of war, but it’s about survival, humanity, and trying to remove the barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and just become ‘us’. We felt that was extremely important in the world we were and are experiencing right now.”

Nine Parts of Desire takes the form of monologues by nine different female characters, each a composite of a number of women the playwright interviewed in the course of writing the play. Vanessa describes the play as, “a series of monologues that are woven together brilliantly. The dialogue between these political powers and their political situations as compared to the internal wars… the political civil war and the internal civil war and the women’s landscape and the country’s landscape. The parallels between the politic and the personal are deep and profound and moving.”

Vanessa says by exploring the experience of war at such a personal level, the themes and universality of the play become apparent. In doing so, Vanessa says the play becomes about much more than the specifics of the Iraq war, but the universalities of trying to survive in a world full of competing powers, uniting the Canadian audience with the Iraqi subjects and setting of the play. “The more you know, the more you see these people as humans that have survived great trauma. [The play] talks about survival, which I think is something that we all experience – there are themes about occupation and environmental concerns and the changing landscape and all the leftovers from a war. In the play, I also recognize many other conversations and things we’re speaking about right now at home, about our water or our soil. I often come back to Indigenous concerns, being an occupied country, having another force come in and dictate how you are allowed to live and the divisiveness that can create, I think that’s extremely resonant in Canada. We’ve talked about generational trauma and all of the things that a group of people have to endure when they experience a very damaging war.”

“In many places in the world, once you start getting down to it, some of this resonates with all different kinds of communities all over the world. We seem to keep having the same kinds of fights. We’re really struggling to grow beyond this sort of policy and power struggle, but we need to. I’ve been saying in my interviews that I feel, for me, in response to what is happening in the world, we need to love and we need to love now because there is a lot of divisive conversation happening out there and the world is shrinking, and we need to know each other, respect each other, and put forward choices that are based in love and respect for the human being and we need to remove the definition of ‘us’ and ‘them’. There is only us.”

To that end, The Maggie Tree wanted to create the opportunity for the audience to experience multiple different Iraqi artistic forms, and so have integrated this into the production in a number of ways, including live Iraqi music during the performance and visual art by Fordos Lateef, an Iraqi artist, in the lobby. Vanessa says her hope is, “that people come and have an experience of another culture, and feel like they’ve had an opportunity to know more about people from a different place and hopefully be more knowledgeable and welcoming within our own city to those people. Also to encourage people to know more about all the people around them and have less fear towards new faces and a better understanding of why they might be here.”

“The topic of diversity and intersectionality in theatre in particular but also in working environments or really anywhere can’t be discussed on Facebook. It can’t be discussed in closed circles. We have to put the questions forward… We need to not be afraid to have those conversations with each other. Social media is not the place to have those conversations – those aren’t dialogues, those are rants.”

To further encourage those conversations, The Maggie Tree has put together a number of ancillary events to Nine Parts of Desire, including pay-what-you-will performances on April 6, 8, and 15, a performance welcoming new Canadians (April 11), two panel discussions (April 12 and 13), and a performance with ASL interpretation (April 13).

Nine Parts of Desire runs at the Varscona Theatre April 6 – 15.  Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for students and seniors through Tix on the Square or in person at the Varscona. Pay-what-you-will tickets on April 6, 8 and 15 are available exclusively at the door.

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