“The Poets and the Assassin,” an original play examining the history and contemporary lives of women in Iran, will be showing Friday in the Talbot Lecture Hall on the Portland Campus. Written by University of Southern Maine Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs Reza Jalali, the performance is in celebration of International Women’s History Month. The play begins at 7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
The title of the play draws attention to the many female poets who have come out of Iran and to the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian student killed in the uprising against the disputed elections in 2009.
“I wanted to offer an insight into the plight of women in Iran because it is a very closed society to the rest of us,” Jalali said. who was born in Iran and frequently travels back. “We know very little about it and we know less about half of the population.”
Jalali said the play is particularly relevant now as Iran is increasingly in the news regarding its suspected nuclear weapons program and the response by Israel and the United States.
While Agha-Soltan’s story is central to the play, Jalali said he took a more historical approach, beginning 2500 years ago with the Persian Empire and Cyrus the Great. Subsequent acts concern legends like Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights, while others deal with current matters, like the hijab, the head scarf worn by many Muslim women and required of women in Iran.
Each act consists of a monologue focusing on an individual woman. Agha-Soltan’s story and how she became the “poster child” of the Iranian Green movement is the focus of the fifth and final act.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the struggle of Iranian women for public space because they lead very contradictory and complex lives.” Jalali said. He said while 60% of college students in Iran are women, they make up 30% of the workforce and they have been able to vote and take office since 1963, they still face certain restrictions in public life. Jalali said women in Iran face an “identity crisis” as they juggle their roles as Muslims, Persians and educated women.
Associate Professor of theater Assunta Kent is the director of the play and most of the actors are students from the USM community. Kent said she became interested in the production because of Jalali’s authorship and said that as a series of monologues it lends itself to her expertise in oral interpretation. She said she was also intrigued by the subject and the writing.
“It gives many different Iranian women a voice and they have great humor and great dignity” said Kent.
The actors, most of whom are not trained performers, come from a diverse background. Two of them, Roya Hajabian and Mehrnaz Ghorashi are from Iran and are studying social work and nursing respectively. Elizabeth Kershenbaum is a musical theatre major from Massachusetts and Aleksandra Derikonja who plays Scheherazade is an Economics major and a winner of the Miss Maine beauty pageant.