Cultural Authenticity Brings 9 Parts of Desire to Life on Edmonton Stage

A grant from Edmonton Community Foundation is helping Edmonton theatre producers in their understanding and portrayal of Iraqi culture

When Vanessa Sabourin went in search of a new play for her Edmonton theatre company, The Maggie Tree, she remembered a script she’d come across many years before. Written by American playwright and actress Heather Raffo, 9 Parts of Desire details the lives of nine Iraqi women of diverse backgrounds — including an artist, communist, and doctor — between the first and second Gulf Wars and Occupation. The story felt perfectly relevant to the current political climate.

“It just seemed to be the seed of the world we’re living in right now. At the time, Trump was still running for president and there were conversations about Syrian refugees coming over,” says Sabourin, who directs the play in collaboration with Azimuth Theatre.

In her view, the script gives a voice to people experiencing the terror of war in a way that news broadcasts can’t. “Raffo wrote this as a way to bring the humanity back to the people,” she says. While writing the script, the playwright interviewed several Iraqi women and created characters based on her research. The result is a diverse cast of characters that range from a nine-year-old girl interested in American popular culture to an elderly street peddler selling items from destroyed buildings.

It was important to Sabourin and her co-producer, Kristi Hansen, to produce the script as authentically as it was written, especially as Sabourin hails from Edmonton and Hansen from Saskatchewan. The duo successfully applied to Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) for a grant to help them accurately portray Iraqi culture and do justice to the script.

With the funding, the producers hired two cultural consultants, including contemporary Kurdish writer Jalal Barjanji, to help the cast and producers understand Iraqi traditions and the historical context of the play. “Sometimes there are references that are a tip of an iceberg that they can fill us in so that we have a deep and clear understanding of what the characters are talking about,” Sabourin says.

The support has also allowed the producers to hire the play’s diverse cast. In other productions of the play, one actor typically portrays the roles of the nine different women; Maggie Tree producers opted to hire different actresses from a variety of backgrounds for each role. Sabourin believes this diversity helps make the story universally relatable.

Actress Amena Shehab agrees completely. She plays one of the main characters, Layal, an artist from Baghdad. In the play, Layal endures horrible trauma, including sexual assault and witnessing the execution of a friend, but her strength is inspiring.

Some aspects of the emotionally challenging role are familiar to Shehab, who came to Edmonton three years ago with her husband and children after fleeing Syria when the war broke out. “I jumped from the cliff and I didn’t know where I was going. I was feeling this in my stomach, a high then low feeling, like an airplane landing,” she says. But Shehab has thrived—not only is she starring in 9 Parts of Desire, she’s also writing a play about a girl fleeing Syria.

She believes 9 Parts of Desire has the potential to deeply affect audience members. “Each one of the nine stories will touch something in you. I want you to take it with you like you take your purse, like you take your wallet or jacket,” Shehab says. “In 9 Parts of Desire, you don’t just see the blood, you smell it; you don’t just hear the war, you feel it. And you can’t forget: If we put money into art, we’ll stop producing weapons.”

9 Parts of Desire opens plays April 6-15, 2017 at the Varscona Theatre in Edmonton. The ECF grant has also allowed the producers to immerse audience members in Iraqi culture before and after the show. Iraqi visual artists Fordos Lateef and Madhi Hasan have been hired to display their work in the theatre lobby, where musicians will also play Middle-Eastern music.