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The Blacks
Sensory feat of a supreme kind

By Soma
February 4, 2000
The Iranian

The House of Khorshid is not where the sun is trapped. If it weren't for the design, looked at from above, streaked with concrete slabs that shoot off a concrete semi-circle, it would have been the ultimate misnomer. In fact, the sun has no way of finding its way into the opaque, black-bean-shaped stage. It opened in Tehran last month to house a play, appropriately called SIAHA.

But the choice of location is hardly accidental. Should we say, rather, that the chance occurrence which brought the director of the play, Hamed Mohammad-Taheri, face to face with the basement of the City Theater, was part of the reason which gave birth to the staging of Genet's THE BLACKS.

The play is studded with imagery and language to confuse those witnessing its re-enactment on stage. So much is admitted by Archibald Absalom Wellington, the first character we meet: "This evening we shall perform for you. But in order that you remain comfortably settled in your seats in the presence of the drama that is unfolding here, in order that you be assured that there is no danger that such a drama will worm its way into your precious lives, we shall have the decency ­ a decency learned from you ­ to make communication impossible." Never is the audience let alone to feel comfortable before the spectacle. Never is he allowed to grasp in one fell swoop the meaning of words that come at him with relentless force.

Correctly speaking, there are no audiences in this play, merely spectators. There is nothing to understand (to hear) but everything to gloat over, to see. Genet's language defies meaning, "One can dream of an art that would be a profound web of symbols," he says in another place, "of speaking to the audience in a language in which nothing is said but everything is portended." Perhaps this is one reason that he is regarded as "one of the five most important playwrights" of the West ­ his ability to write for stage, the visual power of his dramatic language.

But why was this play chosen. Mohammad-Taheri is elliptical. In an interview with ASR-E AZADEGAN, on the eve of the play's premier, he betrays nothing. "I don't know why I chose it, it just felt right," he says evadingly. "You have to go and see it for yourself." And, true to the tradition of modern French intellectuals, he renounces the Arts en mass. Asked by the interviewer, perhaps to salvage something, whether he at least cherishes the dramatic arts, he answers unyieldingly that he doesn't even enjoy theater that much.

So, why should we, as "spectators", go and see the play? Is there something here that smacks of directorial self-indulgence, of spoiled-child once-émigré intellection that will send us howling once the whole thing is over?

SIAHA is a sensory feat of a supreme kind. Mohammad-Taheri has been able to grasp and enact a play that has confounded and hamstrung many that have tried to approach it. To be sure, he has left nothing undisturbed. Not simply the stage direction (which is conventionally not followed to the letter) but also the text has been tampered with. The opening act, the set, the actors and actions, the music and the ending have all seen a marked re-styling, so much so that one can claim that the director has created something totally new ­ a definite sign of creative output and outpour. "Death, Mime, Encounter!" he says in the brochure. "This theater has spawned from our encounter: Genet, the Text, House of Khorshid, the translator, Seventy Tombstones, Royaii, Hossein, Afshin, and death." A statement that can be significant in itself, "each being a horizon in the skull of encounter." Grisly stuff.

The Set

LES NÈGRES was first staged in Paris by director Roger Blin on 28 October 1959 (who later went on to direct other plays of Genet, including the epical THE SCREENS). In that production, and in subsequent performances in New York, the actors (all Black) are divided in two. One group, the Court, is standing on a tier, donning white masks and overlooking the performance of the group below. Genet specifies elaborate costumes and regalia. Strewn all around the stage are fetishes and objects (a blond wig, a carnival mask, a piece of pink knitting, white gloves, etc.), which are used during the play. A catafalque draped in white cloth and covered with lilies, irises, and roses is placed in the center of the stage.

For Genet, an object is a sign. It points to the order of the world in which it is inextricably placed. It forms an essential bond with other objects that come into contact with it. A blond wig, for example, is more than what it is; it stands for falsehood, but also for the desire that it evokes and has come to represent. It belongs to a world that can glorify itself only by establishing itself in the theater of signs and insignias.

But Mohammad-Taheri has chosen to ignore all the essential fetishism of Genet. His BLACKS are not Blacks anymore. They have been transformed beyond retrieve. No blond wig or white glove to point to the colonial/sexual order. No white mask or elaborate costume to designate and distinguish master from slave. The spectator is not constantly reminded of the colonial order that the play sets out to expose. In fact, all master/slave relations have been tamed. The Court (comprised of the Queen, the Judge, the Governor, the Missionary, and the Valet) is incarnated in one person.

To compensate for that, not only the floor is used as a blackboard to act out many of the scenes, but new symbolic fetishes ­ bread, pomegranate ­ have been introduced to add different layers of meaning. Then, there is the House of Khorshid, which the director so masterfully employs as an integral part of his reading of the play. Once lights are turned out, the set is engulfed in near-absolute darkness. The spectator is at once present to death and birth, a theme the director chooses to focus on with intent. Dimmer lights and candles are used extensively to now force the spectator to be at the mercy of dark forces, haunted by imaginary ghosts, and now to reveal what took place in darkness.

As the spectator descends the stairs to enter the House, and before he is actually allowed to go in, he is greeted with words of Archibald (not part of the actual play, but words that Genet wrote on a different occasion):

"In cities of today, the only appropriate place to build a theater ­ which alas is situated on the peripheries of the city ­ is the cemetery. The choice of such a location will do a great service to both the cemetery and the theater. The architect who builds such a monument will not tolerate the idiotic structures that people imprison their dead in. If a theater is built in such a location, people who walk in and out of it must march through paths that will career between graves. Imagine people who, after seeing 'Don Juan', come out of the theater and, before they go back to their ordinary lives, walk in between the dead who have been buried there. Their conversation, even their silence, will not be the same as when they walk out of city theaters. As such, death will be nearer and lighter, and theater more important. As for the spectator: Only those can attend a theater who can prowl in cemeteries at night to confront a mystery. I speak of erecting a theater among the graves only because in the world today the word death is an opaque word."

The House of Khorshid has allowed the director to make good on the author's wish. To make the word "death" shine forth with brightness in the basement of the City Theater.

In a note to Roger Blin, when THE SCREENS was being produced, Genet explains that "in order for this event ­ the performance or performances ­ without disturbing the order of the world, to impose thereupon a poetic combustion I should like it to be so strong and so dense that it will, by its implications and ramifications, illuminate the world of the dead ­ billions and billions ­ and that of generations unborn." This stems from Genet's conception of theater: "If we maintain that life and the stage are opposites, it is because we strongly suspect that the stage is a site closely akin to death, a place where liberties are possible."

Following Archibald's oration, the spectator is ushered into the repository/womb. He is present to his death, six feet underground, so to speak, among the dead, who will rise up in turn to greet him as stage actors. For the next two and a half hours, he is bolted by a dazzling display of spectacles and images enacted on stage. Once the performance is over and the spectator mounts the stairs, he is at once born into and raised from the dead. The experience is total.

The Cast

In the original play, the cast is composed of actors and actresses from different ages. With Mohammad-Taheri's rendition, we have a cast comprised entirely of young performers, which offers a new understanding of the play, perhaps one that may hint at the power relations in the current social atmosphere of the country.

Unlike Genet's play, Mohammad-Taheri's SIAHA engages the actor in little dialogue with other actors; instead, the play is mostly composed of a series of monologues which each character takes turn to impersonate. The order of appearance, the theatrical gestures, and, as such, their meaning, have all been meddled with and transformed.

The director succeeds in wrenching out of his cast difficult, acrobatic tasks. Again, in a note to Roger Blin, Genet gives instructions on how to conduct the performers: "Don't be afraid to have the actors and actresses transform themselves into jackals, turkeys, etc. ­ into trees also." They are all made to carry out physically strenuous and rambunctious stunts: Standing on their heads, somersaulting in mid-air, scrapping their lips to the floor, screeching, howling, yapping, squawking, etc. This is no easy drama for the performers, who may see injuries with every night and who pour sweat after each turn. Nor is it an easy drama for the spectator, who is actively engaged in the staging, so close and personal to him.

SIAHA is not a play for entertainment. But it is an event not easy to forget.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Soma


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