Heather Raffo: Exploring the Complexity of Identity

Nov. 02, 2004

-By Simi Horwitz

Actor Heather Raffo asserts she did not write her one-person show, "Nine Parts of Desire," in which she stars, as a vehicle for herself. Its creation emerged from a much deeper place: her identity -- and pain -- as a woman of Iraqi heritage.

"I'm an American, but I became aware of myself as an Iraqi -- had a sense of myself as 'the other' -- for the first time during the Gulf War," Raffo recalls. "I'd walk down the street and overhear people saying, 'Let's go fuck the Iraqis.' I realized from that point on that my cousins in Iraq -- family whom I loved -- would be viewed by many Americans as dark and dirty. I also realized that the only difference between my cousins and myself was the accident of where we were born. That was my loss of innocence and, in a way, the beginning of this piece, although I didn't start writing it until I was in graduate school at the University of San Diego. It was my master's thesis."

"Nine Parts of Desire," which bowed Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater on Wed., Oct. 13, presents a portrait of nine Iraqi women from all walks of life -- from the most traditional (indeed, some are awash in mythic beliefs) to the most modern, calculating, and cynical; from those who feel anyone in power is an improvement over the brutality of Saddam Hussein to those who feel that President Bush brought only chaos to the region and ultimately betrayed the Iraqis.

The play is based on a series of interviews Raffo conducted with Iraqi women and inspired by an aphorism from a Muslim text: "God created sexual desire in 10 parts, then gave nine parts to women and one to men." Raffo, who inhabits each persona fully, moving from character to character seamlessly, says that whatever their differences, "all the women are united by their desire to live fully. I chose the title because it has a certain resonance. It points to the complexity of these women."

A highly animated, 34-year-old native of Okenos, Mich., Raffo, who punctuates her thoughts with a flurry of hand motions, meets with me in a Back Stage conference room, eager to talk about her worldview, politics, and the evolution of her show, which played in England last season and was selected as the best show in London by The Times and as one of the five best plays in London in December 2003 by The Independent.

"I would love audiences to find these women -- many of whom may be alien -- familiar in some way," notes Raffo. "I'd love to hear an American say, 'That Bedouin woman is just like my aunt.' But at the same time, I want American audiences to walk out a little confused, not able to say, 'Oh, I get it,' but rather [to] understand how difficult it is to grasp the psyche of people who have lived under Saddam for 30 years with American support, then had a war with Iran, resulting in 1.5 million deaths, followed by 13 years of sanctions and two wars under American firepower."

Still, in an effort not to create characters who are too foreign to Westerners, Raffo admits presenting the most secular, educated women, "softening the religious aspects, although many Iraqis are Christian, not Muslim." Indeed, Raffo was raised a Roman Catholic. Her American-born mother and Iraqi-born father, who came here as a young man to work as a civil engineer, are both Christian.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Arab-American audiences have been the most responsive, Raffo reports: "They come to me at the end of the show with tears running down their faces. They recognize the women I'm portraying. One young man told me he lost eight members of his family because they didn't have a picture of Saddam Hussein on their wall. I had an Iraqi father and daughter come backstage with very different politics. The father kept saying, 'Bush is a miracle, Bush is a miracle.' The daughter didn't feel that at all, but they both loved the show. I don't know what Americans feel," Raffo continues. "They're less vocal, but I think they're enjoying it, with the exception of some middle-aged Republicans who saw it in Edinburgh, didn't get it, and were obviously turned off."

Pertinence in a Deep Way

Raffo wanted to act from the outset. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she majored in literature, before heading off to the University of San Diego, where she received her M.F.A. Short of a brief dry period, Raffo has worked steadily as an actor in commercials ("which pays the rent") and in theatre. Some of her recent acting credits include an Off-Broadway production of "Over the River and Through the Woods," along with "Macbeth" (as Lady Macbeth), "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (Mistress Page), and "The Rivals," all with the Acting Company. Under the auspices of the Old Globe Theatre, Raffo acted in "Othello" (directed by Jack O'Brien), "Romeo and Juliet" (directed by Daniel Sullivan), "As You Like It" (directed by Stephen Wadsworth), and "The Comedy of Errors" (directed by John Rando).

Raffo credits her acting experience in classical theatre as a significant -- albeit unwitting -- influence on her development as a writer: "It has allowed me to think mythically, poetically, and out of the box. There's nothing that prepared me more for writing than acting. Acting is about sympathizing and feeling with your whole body. And when I write, I'm in my bones, just like an actor."

She adds that her acting background helped her with interviewing Iraqi women -- that and being an Iraqi, "which got me in the door, and being an American, which, oddly enough, made it possible for the women to trust me. They felt they could say things to me, as an American, that they wouldn't allow themselves to say to another Iraqi."

Raffo insists that while she defines herself as an Iraqi-American (equally American and Iraqi), being a woman is what most shapes her.

"What's missing in the world is the feminine balance," Raffo suggests. "I'm not talking about female empowerment, but rather the combined energy of the male and female in everybody."

Raffo's most significant artistic influence is Ntozake Shange, a feminist playwright: "When I first read 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,' I felt I could write too. I felt it came from my blood. If I ever meet Ntozake, I'm going to hug her."

Raffo continues to view herself essentially as an actor, but writing has given her a chance to "integrate my voice in the process. I wish that were true for me as an actor, where only a part of me is used. Acting in my own one-person show is the best way to go for integrating all aspects of me. But, truthfully, I don't really care for solo shows, unless they really enhance the material."

Raffo is not entirely sure what she'll do next: "My real ambition is to appear in movies. I never really wanted to do theatre, although I believe the best training is in theatre. And before I did this piece, I dreamed about doing all the great classic roles. I no longer feel that need. In fact, I'm angry when I think about some of the classics. Why is everyone suddenly doing Greek plays to talk about Iraq? Why don't we go to the Iraqi artists when we talk about Iraq? Or unearth our own stories -- new stories -- that deal with Iraq?" She adds, "I'm not talking about topicality, but pertinence in a deep way."

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