"Heather Raffo Lets 'Noura' Fly Solo" - from Production Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad

Dramaturg Nakissa Etemad caught up with Heather Raffo just before rehearsals began in December, about the genesis of her play Noura, writing for herself, and her relationship with director Kate Bergstrom.

Meet Heather Raffo, an Iraqi American solo performer of international acclaim perhaps best known for her award-winning play 9 Parts of Desire, in which she plays and explores the lives of nine Iraqi women. Noura is her latest play written for herself and four other actors. This Bay Area premiere at MTC marks only the second time that playwright Heather Raffo sits back in the playwright’s chair and hands the role of her character Noura to another actress.

Noura was developed over five years from inception to its February 2018 world premiere at Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, DC and its New York premiere at Playwrights Horizons later that year. What is unique about this production is the long history that director Kate Bergstrom has had with the play. She served as Directorial Observer to Joanna Settle in the premiere and developed a close relationship with Heather, calling her “an inspirational spirit, whose fierce and spiritual storytelling richly digs into the intersectional complexities of womanhood and our present moment.” What draws Kate to Noura the play? “It’s a specific story of self-actualization, of a woman learning how to build a country between holding on and moving on, between choosing herself and choosing everyone around her.”

On the genesis of Noura, Heather revealed that it came out of a convergence of three events in her life: writing with Middle Eastern women communities in New York, motherhood, and the political crisis in Mosul, Iraq. Heather had received a grant in 2013 from the Doris Duke Foundation to “build a demand for theater in the Arab American community of New York. But not the theatre-going community, pockets that possibly never ever, ever went to the theater.” She got to know various community organizations of Middle Eastern women and quickly realized that her initial way in, to get them to even think about theatre was through their common need for learning English. With a university group in Queens who were all in their 20’s, “the crux of their conversations was unearthing taboos and really busting through them.” Heather had them start writing their own monologues, including stories about their personal lives. She says, “A year later, I brought in A Doll’s House and we read it, and they started writing scenes that would be roughly pulled from a five-bullet-point reduction of that play, like: ‘A Woman with a Secret,’ ‘Somebody from the Past,’ ‘Somebody Shames Her.’ So it was super simple. A Doll’s House wasn’t our Bible, there was nothing so Ibsen about anything. It was just that we read this thing that’s very Western theater, but [I asked them], as your Saudi and Egyptian and Syrian self, what do you make of telling a story with some of those bullet points? I think the biggest thing was they all had harrowing stories of leaving home. And they were trying to upend something deeply structural in their life. And this place that we all deeply connected on as well was how we carry community while we’re trying to be an individual. And I think that that became most of what my play Noura is about.” 

Second, Heather continued that her work with these women “coincided with 2 other major events in my life, one being a mother. So, as a Western feminist, I’m drawn to feeling like a rugged individual sometimes. I don’t dislike feeling that way sometimes. But then there’s the babes, and the husband, and the community, and then as an Iraqi American, there’s all of Arab America or Middle Eastern America, or the Middle East, or all of Iraq. There’s all these things, right? And very much the Middle Eastern culture moves as a unit. You don’t just up and do anything necessarily in a super individualistic way. Middle Eastern feminism works that way too; it’s already broader than Western feminism. So I kind of dove deep into that.” 

Thirdly, in addition to the inspiration of her own motherhood, Heather was inspired by the events in her father’s hometown of Mosul (and that of her characters Noura, Rafa’a, and Maryam), Iraq’s second-largest city and ancient homeland of the Chaldean Christians who spoke Aramaic, the language of Jesus. ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known by the Arabic-language acronym “Daesh”, spoken by the character of Maryam) captured and held the city of Mosul from June 2014 to July 2017. This occupation of her family’s homeland deeply affected Heather and led to further content in her play Noura

Heather recalled: “When ISIS took Mosul, it became its own unique drama, and it was the first time that I sort of felt, how do I describe it… With all the different wars in Iraq and all the different violences, I was worried about family surviving, but I wasn’t feeling an existential genocide to any part of my own psyche. I was worried for other people, and wanted there not to be war, and for people to be safe. But it wasn’t like my history was going to get wiped off the map—I don’t think I would have even called it my history, I didn’t think of myself as a Christian. I thought of myself as somebody with Iraqi heritage, and I didn’t agree with this war in Iraq on behalf of all peoples."

Heather witnessed her own family moving from claiming Iraqi identity to a Christian identity. “Even when the second war in Iraq happened and I saw my family move over a decade, [I saw them] move closer to [saying] ‘we’re Christians, we’re not Iraqi’. And then it felt really personal because I realized, when ISIS took Mosul and the rest of my family fled, I saw that this community is forever a diaspora community now. […] I had a family of over 100 people that didn’t want to leave—except my dad and two other cousins who did want to leave. Slowly over a decade and a half, they were worn down, each to their own threshold and then left. So that’s kind of the personal crime for me, now I have nobody to visit, there’s nobody I’m going to go talk to about that ancient church, or that old place, or these things my grandfather built or did. It’s now a diaspora community even though I’m American and living here. That touchstone of ‘Oh, the old people will always be in the old country and I can go get the story from them that live there and do the thing....’ – it’s just shattered.”

Heather witnessed her own family moving from claiming Iraqi identity to a Christian identity. “Even when the second war in Iraq happened and I saw my family move over a decade, [I saw them] move closer to [saying] ‘we’re Christians, we’re not Iraqi’. And then it felt really personal because I realized, when ISIS took Mosul and the rest of my family fled, I saw that this community is forever a diaspora community now. […] I had a family of over 100 people that didn’t want to leave—except my dad and two other cousins who did want to leave. Slowly over a decade and a half, they were worn down, each to their own threshold and then left. So that’s kind of the personal crime for me, now I have nobody to visit, there’s nobody I’m going to go talk to about that ancient church, or that old place, or these things my grandfather built or did. It’s now a diaspora community even though I’m American and living here. That touchstone of ‘Oh, the old people will always be in the old country and I can go get the story from them that live there and do the thing....’ – it’s just shattered.”

Heather summarized this complexity with keen self-awareness: “That personal crisis that took me a very long time to tell you about, I can’t define it in a sentence! That’s a lot where Noura came out of. How do you carry and hold that kind of history when you feel you’ve been wiped out? Even though I wasn’t in the middle of that crisis or anything, I thought, ‘God, everybody getting on every boat, and walking across every border feels that way, but way worse.’ Everybody’s in that sense of ‘if I had even one hope of staying, I would stay.’ So all that stuff was living inside me when it came out through Noura. It’s a convergence. I can’t say it was about the women in Queens, or it was about Mosul only, or it was about motherhood only, it was the way they were all converging.” Noura truly reflects that time in Heather’s life, in her writing path.

I asked Heather to speak a bit about her relationship with our director Kate. Heather replied: “So I met her on this project in Washington, DC, and our relationship formed by having excited and very unearthing conversations about the text and what’s behind it. This was its world premiere, so we were trying different things and seeing how they worked in front of an audience, and Kate was a huge part of that. So she saw all the original rehearsals, and how the show changed in previews, and audience feedback, and she was around for how it got interpreted. She has done all the years of homework with me personally and now gets to step forth and just decide her own things. So that’s what makes our relationship pretty cool. She didn’t see it once or twice just from the outside. She was inside it for a long time and now [can ask]: ‘Ok, how does this live in 2020, and what do I want to make of it.’ I want it to have her stamp on it.”

As both playwright and actress, Heather has been most profoundly ‘on the inside’ of creating Noura—both the play and the character. When I asked if she always intended to play Noura, Heather affirmed that she did “in original productions, but not forever obviously. I knew I wanted it to go have a bigger life without me. That was part of the intention as well.” Heather added that she doesn’t always write a character for herself, but did in the case of Noura, “because it contained a lot of things that were super specific to being a woman of my age and a woman in my place in life. And that’s not something the theater’s willing to tackle very often. So I definitely did write this one for myself. Because I had a bone to pick with my own acting, and what I was up to, and what work was out there. I would say, as a mother, in particular, there is not a lot of feminist motherhood literature anywhere, let alone in the theater. You know, we want our feminists to be young and individualistic…. And this is so confusing to me; that the mother figure always has to be earth mamma and nothing but. So, putting two moms in this play felt really important to me.”

I pursued further investigation into Heather’s lead character, asking what prompted her to make Noura an architect. She replied, “Because I find a homeless architect really interesting. I wanted her to have the power of being visionary and to be somebody that was absolutely reimagining the future of Iraq, both in Baghdad, or Mosul, or wherever she might be designing. I wanted her to be deeply part of that world and community, rather than her being another profession that wasn’t as essential to the new vision. I also wanted her to be somebody that could carry the old and the new, and be torn between them, and I think architects can be. They’re always reinterpreting. And I wanted her to have all the language in the world for what home, and rooting, and building homes, and building places would be; and still be as lost and at sea and in pain as she is. And then there’s Zaha Hadid who’s the inspiration for [the character of Noura]. Like, the best architect, arguably in the world, happened to be a woman and happened to be an Iraqi woman. It was a really nice springboard for a role like this. Not that Noura is Zaha, or that Noura is that genius, but that the world would have to sit up and go, ‘Oh, what if somebody with that kind of a mind is stuck as a refugee?’”

I mentioned to Heather that while on Thanksgiving holiday I stumbled across the book called Hadid, a large, glossy hardcover of Zaha Hadid’s complete works (published by TASCHEN). Heather exclaimed, “Oh yeah, I have that book! I mean it’s everything. Tell everybody to go buy that book and they’ll know exactly what the show is about, it’s about someone who thinks like that.” 

In closing, I’d like to share a few important thoughts from director Kate’s welcome presentation on our first day of rehearsal:

“Theatre offers a utopian, careful togetherness, a breath in impossible circumstances… Noura is about a woman coming of age in between two countries, her past and her present, becoming the urban tissue she wants to see in the world.

In 2020, Noura continues to provoke. It inspires and challenges us to use our imaginations and hearts bravely in building, through our bodies, the fabric of the next century.”