Sepideh Khosrowjah’s new play, It’s Not About Pomegranates, is partly a quest to undo the curse of the Iranian diaspora artist addressing the audience of her host country. No matter what kind of tree she is, her audience expects her to bear pomegranates, or imaginatively meow like a Persian cat while taking a beating from nearby male pomegranate trees. J.K. Rowling can create flying cars or ghosts in the bathroom, but change the writer’s name to Sepideh Khosrowjah and suddenly the story is no longer “authentic.”
Atoosa, the Iranian female character in Khosrowjah’s play, has written a promising romantic play that happens not to include the stereotypes of Iranian relationships. For all we know none of the characters are even Iranian. Sean, a literary manager says he loves the work for its depth and passion, but Atoosa’s Iranian name stands in the way of his recommending the play to his clients. The market pigeonholes Atoosa into the Persian mystique genre or the repressed Middle Eastern woman category.
If the stereotyping issue had been the only driving energy in It’s Not About Pomegranates we would have been left with an important but dry work pointing out a serious problem. But the play evolves into an engaging love story between Atoosa and Sean. Their initial meeting starts with a discussion about what Atoosa should change in her play, but soon their argument picks up a hue of a lovers’ spat. It is as though Sean is asking Atoosa to be someone she is not. Atoosa, in turn, holds her ground in the relationship with a “take it or leave it” stance angrily tossing the manuscript to the floor with some harsh words for Sean. As a literary manager with the power of life over Atoosa’s career Sean has the advantage in the relationship, but at the same time Atoosa is intriguing, attractive and challenging. In this intimacy of anger, followed by apologies and regrets, Sean is able to ask Atoosa out on a date. Meanwhile we worry for Atoosa.
As portrayed by Anna Bayat, Atoosa is an innocent in love, to the point where we wonder just how much her play can teach about it. She has been hurt in a previous relationship, but has come away from the experience with more fear than wisdom. Initially Bayat’s Atoosa wears her heart on her sleeve. There are no points where Atoosa’s calculations seem to stem from anything but apprehension. Any disingenuousness from her has only to do with being in a professionally less powerful position than Sean. She says he was only 20 minutes late to their meeting when in fact he was 30 minutes late. She pretends Sean picking up his cell phone calls does not annoy her. Things so little that it makes our heart protectively reach out to the character. Only later in the play, when the relationship is strained does she resort to feminine wiles—and simple games at that.
Richard Reinholdt’s Sean, however plays with his cards close to his chest until his lines force him to reveal himself. He’s suspiciously charming, and projects confidence even in the way he shares his vulnerabilities and uncertainties with Atoosa. For some reason he seems sure he knows himself, even though both him and we are unclear as to what he wants from Atoosa. Despite the fact that the characters sometimes speak their mind directly to the audience, it is obvious that they don’t fully understand their own motivations. Sean is certainly lucky enough to get the beautiful Atoosa in bed on that first date. But was it luck or savvy?
As experienced actors Bayat and Reinholdt are often lock and key in their exchanges, but the playwright leaves the key turning and unlocking to the audience. In the beginning of the first act of It’s Not About Pomegranates Sean sees the male character in Atoosa’s play as a scoundrel whereas Atoosa had meant to create a character worthy of love. She puts some blame on the female character for what went wrong. Stereotyping her, Sean sees this as the Middle Eastern tendency for the victim to blame herself —a way, perhaps, of adding a little pomegranate to Atoosa’s play. Khosrowjah has recreated that seminal debate in her play about a play, and like Sean and Atoosa, each of us will come away with a different judgment about the characters. Some would say she slept with him to get her play produced. A favor for a favor. Others, like me, would see two people looking for an excuse to fall in love. Still others may favor their attention on the intellectual dialogs about how East and West typecast each other.
To remind us about the play referencing itself, and as a metaphor for the typecasting theme director Hamid Ehya has had the play’s set be a set inside a set, light box and everything. Sean’s apartment and the auditioning set at his office are one and the same set. Actors playing actors in a play about a play. But all the world’s a stage, and Sepideh Khosrowjah, like her character Atoosa has succeeded in writing a play that’s refreshingly not about pomegranates. “Just” about love.
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