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 Sandiana Mervil launches a 4-part a blog series on their experience and the impact of this play, then and now.
Five years ago, I was cast in the role of Mullaya in Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire, presented by Art2Action at the University of South Florida. At the time, I was unfamiliar with the concept of a funeral crier, but I knew that was the role of my character. Funeral criers had all but disappeared in Western society. In my research, I discovered that a professional mourner grieves with the bereaved, eulogizes the dead, and helps to carry the emotional labor of grief. Although all the characters in the show were originally played by one woman, our director, Andrea Assaf, decided to have three of us share the role.
At first, I viewed this as of a division of the role, but with greater understanding of the character, I came to realize that Mullaya was triune. Each of us represented a different facet of her. Because each of us contrasted so greatly in our stage presence, we spent many extra hours in rehearsal working towards unity. We worked with USF Theatre Professor and Art2Action Board Member Dora Arreola to create a unique physical language for our character. Each sway, step, vocal inflection, sigh, and breath became characteristics that were unique to our portrayal of Mullaya.
Sandiana Mervil, Surayyah Mukhtar, and Danielle James as Mullaya (USF Theatre 2, 2015)
Mullaya is a timeless entity who bears witness to the grief of all humankind. Instead of being hired for one funeral, we served in introducing the world to the characers: Layal, Amal, Huda, The Doctor, The Iraqi Girl, Umm Ghada, The American, and Nanna. 9 Parts of Desire exposes the suffering of Iraqi women under the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent invasion and occupation of Iraq. Their pain is raw and visceral because it is real. These are composite characters created from the stories of real women in the Iraqi diaspora; their words ring true because they are true.
In theatre, many of the great classics are written by people who have died long ago. There is no way to inquire about their meaning, intention, or thought process. Although a measure of interpretation is needed in theatre, there is something very valuable about having access to a living playwright. The playwright, Heather Raffo collaborated with Andrea Assaf on a unique interpretation of 9 Parts of Desire. Throughout the process, each of the cast members had the opportunities to ask Raffo about her experiences and her creative process. As she revealed her journey, we gained greater insight and respect for the work.
As an ensemble, we spent a month’s worth of time exploring the cultural significance of 9 Parts of Desire. We attended a USF sponsored welcome event for World Refugee Day. During this event, we met and celebrated with Middle Eastern and North African community organizers and refugees. It was a joyous occasion to celebrate the welcome additions to the Tampa Bay community.
Michelle Grace, Sandiana Mervil, Camille Achinelli, Maddison Wise, and Andrea Assaf (2015)
At the event, we ate pastries prepared by a Lebanese bakery, enjoyed performances from Egyptian musicians, and networked with members of the Muslim Student Association. Having all our cast present and able to interact with the attendees and organizers helped to provide a foundation for our ensemble. Through Art2Action’s “THIS Bridge” series, we were invited to meet with prominent Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim artists such as the Egyptian muralist and graffiti artist, Aya Tarek. Our director also arranged for a member of the Muslim Student Association to teach us a Levantine folk dance called Dabke; we later incorporated the dance into the play. During the rehearsal process, we also had the opportunity to discuss the Iraq War with military veterans. We engaged in a gripping dialogue followed by a military style physical fitness class. Although we had been conditioning our bodies beforehand, the class was physically taxing, and we had to take many breaks for water and rest. The session was voluntary, yet it was still overwhelming to some of us. We heard the stories of those who had been victims of war, and we heard the stories of those who had been tasked with engaging in war. The experiences were difficult to hear, but they prepared us for the realities of the women we were portraying.
The live performances set the stage for the quality that should be upheld for theatre. I had invested an immense measure of time and effort into the performance. I spent 20 hours a week painting and building the set while attending rehearsals, working two jobs, and taking on a full course load. I would be on campus from 8:00AM-12:00AM every day. I slept very little, but it was well worth the effort. Seeing the hard work of the lighting designer, costumer designer, stage manager, assistant stage manager, director, stagehands, and actors erected on that stage, restored my strength. Theatre has a redeeming quality which endures forever.
I am so incredibly grateful to have had the enriching experience of being a part of 9 Parts of Desire with such a talented cast and crew. On August 21, 2020, the director and the main cast came together for a 5-year anniversary performance of 9 Parts of Desire. Of course, Zoom cannot provide the same experience as live theatre, but it was beautiful, nonetheless.
(Please see our 2020 Virtual Program for cast names and roles!)
When we first gathered to read through the script, I could not believe five years had passed. Our dialect work and vocal cadences rested as comfortably as they had in 2015. Although we were scattered across the country and beyond, the energy of the cast and audience traveled to me. Experiences like these are what comfort me in these times. I am completing a graduate degree in Theatre at a time when the future of theatre can seem precarious. COVID-19 has left a trail of death across the globe. Theatres across the country have gone dark and I have been tempted by feelings of hopelessness. Fears of entering a depleted a job market have crossed my mind, but I refuse to concede. Theatre will survive at all costs and I am determined to trek on. For now, theatre practitioners are teaching and performing online but I am hopeful that we will beat this virus, and reconvene on stage again.
Sandiana Mervil is a professional actor and voice artist based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is in her final semester of her graduate degree in Theatre at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Hailing from Tampa, FL, she has worked in the Tampa Bay area and made her professional debut as Titania in Free to the People Theatre’s outdoor production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. She can be found working on her graduate thesis, or the Joy Jackson Initiative, a nonprofit working to promote racial equity in professional theatre spaces. Sandiana is honored to revisit this important work in a time when its relevance is impossible to ignore.