Performing traditional Iranian passion plays in New York

Via Words Without Borders, Zara Houshmand on performing Iranian theatre in the United States.

[The New York audience] missed the simple, poignant poetry of the dialogue. And they missed entirely the most critical element of the performance that makes ta’ziyeh [the traditional Iranian passion plays that portray the historical beginnings of Shi’ite faith] in its native environment such an emotionally overwhelming experience: their own role as participants at an event not just reenacted but relived in a catharsis of communal mourning.

Curiously, this aspect of a situated event, where external circumstances lend heightened meaning to the action on stage, is a common feature of Iranian theatre in its many manifestations. It is operative not only when ta’ziyeh occurs in its natural setting, heralded by processions of flagellants, but also when the very act of staging a play becomes a political statement, or when the strategy for getting a scene past the censors itself steals the scene. The New York audience did in fact get a taste of this, though not through any religious experience. The welcome they gave to the ta’ziyeh performers was surely heightened by knowledge that the program had very nearly missed cancellation, and last-minute changes were frantically made when performers were denied or kept waiting for visas as a separate drama played out between the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil.

That the Lincoln Center performances were touted as the first Iranian theatre to be seen in the U.S. since the revolution ignores the extremely varied Iranian émigré theatre active here and the constant traffic of individual artists between the U.S. and Iran. It also sidesteps the fact that, since the revolution, theatre groups from Iran have been well represented at festivals in Europe. Sadly, we are the ones isolated in assuming others’ isolation.