Playwright finds universal truths in staging a political prisoner’s story of survival
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
It’s not often that a play five years in the making debuts during a major breaking news story about the same topic. But Elise Kermani’s multi-disciplined theater piece, based on a relative’s imprisonment in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, does just that.
Opening on the heels of four Iranian-Americans’ release from Evin Prison, where according to news reports they faced months of solitary confinement and physical, psychological and emotional torture, Kermani’s “Iphigenia: Book of Change” debuts Friday, Feb. 12, at The Electric Lodge in Venice.
“I am impressed with any person who can experience prison, come out the other side and be a functioning human being. How does one survive that kind of experience?” Kermani says of what inspired her to write and direct the play.
I ask Kermani’s relative that question, too. We’ll call her “F” because she still has family in Iran whose safety might be jeopardized if she publicly criticizes her home country. F was imprisoned years ago when she was 16 and spent three years in Evin.
“Well, in a sense nobody can ever get out of it,” she responds during a phone conversation from her home in exile in Europe. “It’s always with you. It’s one of those pains you just have to learn to live with. [But] freedom and hope — it’s an instinct.”
F was a victim of Iran’s post-revolution religious crackdown in the early 1980s.The turbulence that led to her arrest had its roots in the Cold War, when the Shah of Iran placated the West by advocating reforms such as extending voting rights to women and eliminating illiteracy.
But those efforts provoked both religious leaders who feared losing their traditional authority and liberals who pushed for more authentic democratic reform. Pushing back, the Shah and his brutal secret police suppressed opponents through arbitrary arrests, torture, imprisonment and exile. Employing the adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” leftists joined religious clerics to overthrow the Shah in 1979.
Then the new revolutionary government, led by the extremist Ayatollah Khomeini, went on a rampage against its former allies, banning leftist newspapers, repressing women, and killing or imprisoning tens of thousands of political dissidents. F among them.
“My brother and sister and relatives were arrested. We were all separated. It was a common thing, she says.
“We were educating ourselves. We wanted to help our environment, to help the poor. We were assaulted simply because of this zeal,” says F, who spits out the word.
Although Kermani originally set her play in Tehran to reflect her relative’s experiences, she wanted F’s story to be more universal.
“You don’t have to be in prison to empathize with this character,” Kermani explains. “We can all create our own prisons within our heads.”
But this isn’t a story about a caged bird. It’s a story about resilience.
“It’s called ‘Book of Change’ because every object, every person, every character in the play goes through a metamorphosis. Even the guard watching over her makes a transformation,” Kermani says.
“How was I transformed?” F pauses during our conversation. “Life became much more valuable to me. Unconsciously, we became survivors who know exactly the value of every breath we take in. Because we had experienced death, we saw death, we witnessed it in a horrifying way. … We know that those who lost their lives were just as hungry for a beautiful life as we were. Everybody who survived that situation wouldn’t give up, because it’s like betraying those who died.”
“Iphigenia: Book of Change” is a collaborative effort that includes dance, visual art, video design and music. It also utilizes surprisingly evocative wolf-puppets to represent F’s imagination and inner spirit.
I ask F what she would tell a young woman imprisoned today for political activism — or for just being in the wrong place during the wrong time in history.
She takes a deep breath.
“I don’t dare tell her anything! But if she looks in my eyes, I would give her all the support in my heart. I would give her all my love for being herself, because I believe she can find her way. She’s a hero. She’s a superhero just for being there. And she’s doing something absolutely extraordinary.”
As we wind down our conversation, I sense the now 50-year-old woman is really cheering on a girl she knew long ago.
“Iphigenia: Book of Change” is playing at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 3 p.m. Sunday (Feb. 12, 13 and 14) at The Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. Tickets are $16 to $22. Visit book-of-change.eventbrite.com.
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com.