Exile by Nastaran Ahmadi, directed by professor Catherine Ming T'ien Duffly opened for a five-performance run through November 6th–7th, and 12th–14th. It is the world premiere of the play and Duffly's third production at Reed.
Exile tells the story of Sameera (played by Juliana Cable, class of ’19), an Iranian-American videogame designer who lives with her partner Tamrin, a white American independent book publisher (Played by Lily Harris, class of ’16). Sameera is trying to develop a video game also titled Exile about Iran and ends up cheating on Tamrin. Confusion and growth ensues. It’s the story of someone who’s dealing with an identity that’s divorced from her current reality and investigating it through her creative process.
This is the first faculty show in the PAB to be set in the Black Box, a smaller space where we can see the sincerity of the touches between Sameera and Tamrin, and the audience can hear the click of their stilettos and mumbled apologies for infidelity. Upon entry, the audience is met with a rare sight — theater in the triangle. The audience sits on three sets of risers surrounding the set with screens behind each to project pre-filmed scenes, live video of actors, and even screenplay videos of the popular game Portal onto over the show.
As we watch Sameera develop her video game concept, of a lone survivor in a post-nuclear fallout Iran, the projectors serve to bring us into another world. “Theater and video games are arguably very different mediums,” says Lily Harris, class of ’16, “but having multiple artistic mediums in play add layers of theatricality.”
Each section of audience can see the other two sections sometimes even in bright light or up on the screens in live video. Between scenes, we see members of the run crew move furniture to set the upcoming scene all wearing black tee shirts with a half full loading bar and the word 'LOADING' on their backs. These reminders that we’re watching something artistically created involve us in the theatrical world and when the play goes into scenes from within Sameera’s game, all projectors running, and even the floor of the stage projected on, we enter into a virtual reality.
The play opens to Sameera on her couch, having fallen asleep earbuds in watching Steven Colbert. Her partner, Tamrin, gently wakes her, getting ready for a business day. This is the core relationship of the play. The genuineness of emotion shines out of Cable’s performance as Sameera and we root for her fiercely. Harris is superb as Tamrin — a force to be reckoned with. Her intentions are clear and her timing masterful. Their relationship onstage is intimate and effortlessly loving.
“The play is largely about one woman’s early creative process; where she gets her footing on an idea that’s fermenting in the back of her head. To get at the idea clearly, she has to wade through her personal and emotional roadblocks,” says Ryan Wright, dramaturge, class of ’16, “A year after the insanity that was gamergate it’s more important than ever to see representations of women involved in the business of making games.”
As the play progresses we see Sameera meet game designer and personal hero Elly (played by Kate Johnson, class of ’16) at the E3 conference she attends. Elly and Sameera’s costumes are true to life. The actors walk onto the stage with partially shaved heads and multiple tattoos: a sleeve of leaves and a cuff tat for Elly and two radioactivity warnings and the Farsi word for wheel on Sameera.
The two become entangled in conversation about E3 as a space for women and Sameera’s game idea. Their entanglement becomes physical and the problems of the play begin in earnest. Elly’s questions about the possible commercial value of Sameera’s Exile game raises the issue of commodification. “She [Sameera] wants to make something that’s meaningful to her,” Says director, Catherine Duffly in interview, “She resists commodifying her identity, but also it’s really what she’s invested in — creating this game that’s so attached to her own identity.”
Elly and Sameera also address the problems of the E3 conference and women’s harassment and objectification in gaming culture. They call to mind game designers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, two of the main targets of gamergate (a misogynistic harassment campaign against women that began in August 2014) and creators of award-winning games such as Depression Quest (Quinn, online game) and Revolution 60 (Wu, iOS game).
But unlike Quinn and Wu, Elly isn’t the feminist hero that Sameera wants her to be. We see Sameera’s surprise that Elly sees women’s objectification as a venue for personal empowerment and that Elly doesn’t act to reform the culture. In dialogue about female cosplayers:
SAMEERA: And it doesn’t bother you?
ELLY: It’s harmless. They get paid to dress like fantasies, and the boys get to look at them.
SAMEERA: What do you get?
ELLY: I get a place to share my ideas where boys listen to me because their dicks and hearts are placated by women dressed in silver links and black metal.
(Exile, by Nastaran Ahmadi, p. 17)
By the time Elly becomes ‘the other woman,’ our empathy for her is somewhat lost. In the tense scene when Tamrin and Elly meet and face off, Tamrin emerges a clear victor.
We also see Tamrin’s struggle with closing a book deal with an ex-CIA agent, Tony (played by Jack Jackson, class of ’19) whose manuscript details his opinions of Iran and his predictions of its doom. “Tamrin and Sameera betray each other in different ways,” says Juliana Cable speaking to me in an interview, “Sameera cheats, but Tamrin betrays Sameera in pursuing this book that so obviously misunderstands something that’s a big part of Sameera’s identity. Tony is taking an ignorant and aggressive stance on Iran and commodifying it to turn a profit. In that scene, I’m calling Tamrin out. It’s my favorite scene to act.”
Intermittently we see solo scenes of a character whose only name is ‘boy,’ (played by Ethan Sandweiss, class of ’19) set in the Iran of Sameera’s game. When Sameera enters into his reality and they communicate, in English and in Farsi, Sameera’s questions of identity and home are, if not resolved, made peace with:
SAMEERA: I’m thinking I don’t know what to say. . . I think about games on video and how I could make one to make sense of everything I think about. I think about how we’re not strong like Hercules, but we try to be.
(Exile, by Nastaran Ahmadi, p. 110)
Exile debuts at a moment entirely too appropriate. As a woman in gaming and an Iranian-American, Sameera is a rarely recognized figure in the current cultural and political climate within the U.S. The trauma caused by gamergate and the national tension from the Iran nuclear deal has little space for reflection and dialogue. The magnitude of these problems were known by Nastaran Ahmadi, who finished the play in 2012.
"I wanted to write a play that addressed my feelings about what it is to be an Iranian-American in a country that's at odds with the region.” says playwright Nastaran Ahmadi, “I also wanted to investigate Iran's relationship to nuclear proliferation, but I didn't want that to be the sole topic at hand. What is a way to talk about violence that can be engaging and fun? For me that's videogames."
Beginning with the image of an American flag burning in Tehran, the 1979 ABC news coverage of what was labeled in America as the Iran Hostage Crisis reported the story of how the residents of the U.S. embassy house in Tehran were taken hostage by protesters. From their report: "Several hundred young people, mainly students at Tehran university have taken over the embassy. 'We are not occupiers,' they said, 'we have thrown out the occupiers.'"
The hostage-takers declared their solidarity with other oppressed minorities and released 13 women and African-Americans in November, 1979. After several thwarted attempts at rescue from the Carter administration, bitter failures in the eyes of the American public, the remaining 52 hostages were released after 444 days of captivity in January, 1981, with the agreement that the U.S. would not intervene in Iranian affairs.
The protest was partly in reaction to the news that the U.S. would allow Iran’s deposed Shah, a pro-western autocrat ousted months before, to come to the U.S. for cancer treatment. The revolutionary overthrow of the Shah had ended Iran’s cooperation with the U.S. on nuclear energy. The protest was a way for the Iranian revolutionaries to declare their independence from America and an end to western influence in Iran’s government.
In the 1950’s, Iran was aided by the U.S. in creating its first nuclear energy facility as part of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, but after Israel acquired a nuclear weapon in the 60’s and Saddam Hussein’s attempts to obtain one in the 80’s, Iranians rethought the need for their own.
Since a 2002 revelation that Iran’s nuclear program was more advanced than previously believed, relations between the U.S. and Iran, still antagonistic after the hostage crisis, have been further stretched. This resulted in a four and a half year long international negotiation process completed this year on the Iran Nuclear deal, which blocks all venues for Iran to create nuclear weapons.
The agreement, a non-violent victory for war-weary Americans and a milestone in the movement toward building security through diplomacy instead of militancy, was hoped to improve relations. The deal has met fervent opposition in America and Iran, where economic strife and political unrest following the allegedly fraudulent 2009 election abound and anti-American sentiment is prevalent.
To Iranian-Americans and their loved ones, as represented in Exile, this is not an unfamiliar history. The conflict that Sameera faces in Exile as someone who has never visited Iran and is not quick to identify herself as Persian is deepened as a queer woman in gaming.
In the PAB’s dressing rooms on opening night, costumers prepared actors' hair and retouched their airbrushed tattoos while the actors ran lines and anticipated the presence of the playwright in the audience on the second weekend.
Speaking about the moment she received the role of Sameera, Juliana Cable said, “I felt really honored and also terrified in a good way. . . I felt an immense responsibility to do a good job. A big part of my concern was that I’m not Iranian. In some ways I could relate it to my own experience because I’m biracial; I’m half Puerto Rican. . . Honestly most of my research for the role was less looking facts up and more learning about the experience of being an Iranian-American person in a culture that doesn’t make that easy.”
Tasked with representing multiple delicate subjects in their work and forging a path for the show as the actors of Exile’s first full production, the cast prepared exhaustively. Their research was helped by professors from the political science department, Farsi pronunciation consultants, the playwright herself via a Skype interview, and the show’s dramaturges.
I was able to talk with Director Catherine Ming T’ien Duffly, and when asked about why she chose Exile, she said:
“When I’m thinking about what kind of plays to do I’m always thinking about what we’re putting on our stages. . . I want to stage plays by women and people of color, who are telling the stories that don’t often get told in the U.S. For me the theater is so compelling because of the potential that it holds in staging the world that we want to see. . . We get to make a world.”
Duffy addresses theater’s power to envision social change and challenge the status quo in her note in Exile’s program. Considering the topics at hand and the questions Exile grapples with, our theater is where we can reflect politically and emotionally. In the words of feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian in her speech What I Couldn’t Say for the All About Women conference:
“Somehow we fooled ourselves into thinking that by expressing human emotions it somehow means that the harassers have won. . . but by denying ourselves the space to feel and to share those feelings, we're just perpetuating this notion that we all should suffer alone, that we should all just toughen up and grow thicker skin, which we shouldn't have to do."