The Braid shines a light on Persian American stories
By Bridgette M. Redman
The Braid in Santa Monica, formerly known as The Jewish Women’s Theatre, is committed to authentic storytelling. It is why, when they returned to share stories of second-generation Iranian Americans after a successful run nine years ago of first-generation stories, they turned to the community to curate and perform the stories.
“Persian Sunrise, American Sunset” focuses on Iranian Americans who were born in the United States and who sometimes clash with the older generation with whom they diverge culturally even while respecting their wisdom and experience.
The previous show, “Saffron and Rosewater,” focused on Iranian Jewish women. This production opened the storytelling to reflect a greater portion of the community including non-Jews and men. Co-producing the show are Ora Yashar, a Jewish Iranian American woman who has worked as a literary consultant for The Braid, and Ronda Spinak, the theater’s artistic director.
“I really wanted it to be a show for Iranians of all backgrounds,” Yashar said. “I just find in general that our stories are so seldom told, I thought it would be really nice to have an event that brought everyone in the community together. It is an opportunity for us to have more empathy, but also for people outside the community to have a better understanding of us and our experience in the U.S.”
Yashar remarked that, when she was growing up, she had Iranian friends of all backgrounds and never felt a division of Jewish vs. Muslim. She wanted the show to reflect that, even while acknowledging that wasn’t always the case for everyone.
Spinak originally said the Persian members of their emerging artist program had identity issues than that of the first generation and she wanted to tell those stories. She brought Yashar on board and asked her to co-produce the project.
“Ora impressed me with her keen eye with respect to editing and adapting stories in The Braid’s style of theater/storytelling,” Spinak said.
Yashar went out into her community — and reached out on social media — to find stories from her peers.
She hoped for stories that stepped beyond stereotypes so often portrayed that Iranian Americans, particularly women, are either terrorists or the exotic Princess Jasmine type.
Looking for stories that elicited emotional responses, they received 30 stories. They narrowed those down to 10.
“These stories took us on a journey where the character learned something or this new generation reconciled the different parts of their identity,” Yashar said. “We also really wanted diversity in perspective, so no two stories were saying the same thing.”
The stories include such tales as a gay man having to make end-of-life decisions for a mother who never accepted him; a woman observing how her father couldn’t shed his paranoia and distrust of strangers because of the horrors he faced in Iran from religious fanatics; the challenges a teenager faces in trying to be normal while her family sees her behaviors as impure, among others.
“It will be clear that Iranians come from all different backgrounds,” Yashar said. “It was important that the Iranian community be able to see themselves. It is also important for non-Iranians to know how a lot of times we do feel — or can be made to feel — like an outsider or the other. There is this constant struggle of balancing these different parts of our identity. In the mainstream media, we’re either demonized or portrayed as being more exotic for entertainment purposes. I wanted to show the humanity and complexity of Iranian American people and get past the stereotypes.”
Director Susan Morgenstern said the pairing of Yasar and Spinak was a dream match that created a compelling show.
“The two of them work so beautifully together and this show reflects both of their artistic sensibilities,” Morgenstern said. “Ora has a keen eye for what makes a good story.”
As someone whose first encounter with The Braid was at Spinak’s invitation to see “Saffron and Rosewater,” Morgenstern has high praise for Spinak’s leadership.
“Ora and I get to do this beautiful work because of her,” Morgenstern said. “It all starts from her. Both Ora and I love working with Ronda. It starts at the top with an organization bringing a great message and empowering people to tell stories like this.”
Morgenstern said they have leaned heavily on Yashar in every aspect of the production because she is able to keep them walking the line of authenticity. The show was cast entirely with Iranian American actors out of the need to be genuine.
“That brings a truthfulness and authenticity with the point-of-view storytelling we do, rather than having other actors imagine themselves as Iranian,” Morgenstern said. “I’m from a generation where people would pretend to be from other cultures and that was accepted and can still be accepted, but I really like that we are now laser focused on the authentic point of view, the authentic people telling the stories and singing the songs.”
Morgenstern found actors in the community, two had worked with The Braid before and two had not. She praised them all as being fantastic actors who bring fresh voices to The Braid, and that two of them are incredible professional musicians. Those two will sing throughout the show, including a piece in both Farsi and English. Cast members include Pontea, Niloo Khodadadeh, Ava Lalezarzadeh and Nima Jafari.
In addition to leaning heavily on Yashar for cultural interpretation, Morgenstern said she turns to the actors who bring their Iranian experience to the table. She said it helps that they have shared experiences.
“That is how you know you’re on the right track — when the actor feels personally connected to it,” Morgenstern said.
Yashar expressed a similar affinity to the works, wishing she could have included many more than 10 because they were so beautiful and candid.
“It was so nice to see things that I have felt to a degree throughout my life verbalized and written out in such beautifully poetic ways,” Yashar said. “It was validating for me. I’m not the only one who thinks these things or feels these ways.”
The Braid Theater’s “Persian Sunrise,
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 20; 11 a.m. Sunday, June 24; 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, June 25
COST: Tickets start at $10