9 Parts of Desire: a story of Iraqi women searching for freedom

It's impossible, watching Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, not to be overcome by our powerlessness over the war in Iraq. I felt lazy, disconnected, oafish as Raffo's remarkable one-woman show unfolded before me, moved not only by the depth of emotion she brought to each of her nine characters but by the subtlety with which she led me (and, I'm guessing, much of the audience) to my own helplessness and indifference.

Raffo is an Iraqi-American with relatives in Baghdad. For more than a decade, she interviewed Iraqi women and used what she learned from them to document the political oppression of several generations of Iraqi women. Each of the people we meet here — a painter, a doctor, a lovesick, confused teen — want the same thing: Freedom. These are not burqah-clad submissives, but rather a stage full of strong, largely independent women longing for release — if not from their country, at least from the pain that ties their hearts to the desert. Some hate Saddam Hussein, others despise the American soldiers who have destroyed their country. All are brought to life by Raffo's cunning writing and dazzling performances, made all the more stunning in this Actors Theatre's production by Joanna Settle's masterful direction, which creates seamless segues between the harrowing stories of murder and destruction these women bring us.

It's a stroke of genius on Raffo's part that she doesn't dive right into Bush-bashing, waiting instead until well past the middle of the play to address America's culpability in Iraq's devastation. She does so subtly at first, via a woman who takes us (and presumably the unseen interviewer, which we assume is Raffo herself) on a tour of a Baghdad bomb shelter, where nine of her family were killed in an especially malicious U.S. attack. Later, we meet a teen whose innocent stories about her father lead to his death at the hands of Saddam's henchmen, but who's more interested in telling us how cute are the American soldiers who troop past her home.

For me, the most moving scene in Raffo's passionate, poignant 90-minute performance was a simple one: In a scene preceding the show's coda, Raffo plays herself speaking on the telephone to her Iraqi grandmother back in Baghdad. As she repeated the phrase "I love you!" over and over again in both her own voice and then the voice of her grandmother, her passion spilt over onto a stage already slick with tears and sweat from the several women she'd made come alive for us that night. She wept, and it took some effort for me not to join her.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela