In August 2020, Theatre Unmasked and Art2Action hosted a live online Reading of 9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo, which reunited the cast of the 2015 USF co-production, part of THIS Bridge programming. As a result of revisiting the script and their process together, these young artists re-defined their project: to perform 9 Parts of Desire together again every five years. Actress Surayyah Mukhtar writes part 2 of our blog series on the experience and the impact of this play, then and now.
Discovering Theatre & Its Impact
by Surayyah Mukhtar
I moved to the United States from Nigeria with my husband after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in information technology from International University of East Africa, Uganda. We planned that I would pursue my master’s degree while he’s obtaining his PhD. One day in the Fall of 2015, while I was at University of South Florida studying for my GRE test, I met Topaz Hooper at the student fair, distributing fliers. I was looking to volunteer in a fun activity, and seeing a black girl with a poster that had Middle Eastern women was something that ignited my curiosity. She told me it was for a theatre audition, for a play called 9 Parts of Desire, involving women during the U.S.-Iraq war. I found out that she was accepting volunteers and I registered. All of a sudden, there was so much happening within a short period of time.
Walking into the USF School of Theatre and Dance, it was my very first time being in a place like that. It was like nothing I had seen before. It was an amazing experience. I felt like I was in a movie—the stage, the people, all felt unreal. Where I came from, my theater experience was not very advanced. I convinced myself that this was something I wanted to learn. I said to myself, “I will learn everything and pass it unto my people when I go back home.” As they say in my native language, “tafiya mabudin ilimi” meaning “traveling is a way to increase knowledge.” For me, coming to America was not just to study and go back, but to meet the people, understand different cultures, and make good memories. And all of that happened during my rehearsals for 9 Parts of Desire; I made friends, met different cultures, people with different perspectives and understandings of life.
As we started rehearsals for 9 Parts of Desire, it got more interesting. I was amazed at the stage building process, the costumes, and the characters in the play. As I listened to the words and lines I was saying and hearing from other actors, I realized that these were experiences that are shared with other cultures, and that I am familiar with myself. When we discussed the play and its content, I understood that we are more alike than I thought. I saw injustice, resistance, suppression, prejudice, love, exploitations, grievance, hope, and endurance, in the women’s stories.
The thing that strikes me the most about this play was the unbelievable degree of understanding it brought to so many of us who have never been exposed to the trauma and the conflict described in the play. We connected with our characters so well, and we could imagine and feel the pain and suffering they went through. My character, Mullaya, is an elderly lady that is paid to grieve with the family of the deceased. She is portrayed as a wise character who is familiar with suffering, loss, history, and ancient culture. While I was reading my script, I couldn’t help but connect with all the other characters in the play, their suffering and survival.
I come from the Northern part of Nigeria, and that is where many lives have been lost to the militant group Boko Haram. I believe 99% of the real victim’s stories will be unheard, because we don’t really tell our stories as much as we should. So being in the cast gave me insight, and an opportunity to reflect and understand how powerful telling a story can be. The women in that play might just be any woman you pass on the street, in a grocery store, or in the hallway of your work building. You may see a person going on through their normal daily routine, but you have no idea what their story could be, and how much pain they are concealing behind the smile on their faces. So I began collecting pieces of stories, together with my sister living in Nigeria, hoping someday we can turn it into something powerful, as the writer of this play did.
Coming back to the room together this year, with all the previous cast, brought back good memories and reminded me of all the feelings that I had the first time I did the play. Although it was behind the screen, it proved to me how willing and dedicated the whole ensemble is to making a difference in a world, no matter how small it may be. I felt like I was doing something that is not only impacting my life, but may impact someone else’s life as well. I invited my whole family in Nigeria, and a couple of my friends, to be a part of the experience and to share it with others. They were equally amazed by the performance, and they found the story as insightful and applicable to a larger audience. They felt the same way I felt the first time I read the play.
Surayyah Mukhtar is a Nigerian-born business woman who received a bachelor’s degree from International University of East Africa, Uganda. She has obtained various certifications and has volunteered in a number of fields while staying in the U.S. Surayyah was a cast member in the 2015 USF mainstage production of 9 Parts of Desire, by Heather Raffo, directed by Andrea Assaf and co-presented by Art2Action, Inc. She returned to the role of Mullaya in August 2020 for a live online reading, co-presented by Art2Action and Theatre Unmasked. She currently lives with her husband in Washington, DC.