Reza Abdoh: L.A.‘s Theatre Visionary

15 February, 2022,
L.A. play­wright Reza Abdoh pho­tographed by Paula Court, his orig­i­nal notes for “The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eury­dice” and the LATC pro­gram (1990).

 

“The place that you rip open again and again that heals is God.” —Rain­er Maria Rilke

 

Prologue by Salar Abdoh

I had escaped Los Angeles the first chance I got and tried not to look back, even though there were periods when by default I would end up there for a few weeks or months before I took off again. Reza stayed. Nearly always with our younger brother, Sid. To whom later was added Brenden, Reza’s devoted partner who was with him until Reza’s final moment in the last apartment we shared together in the theater district of Manhattan.
For Reza, LA was the distillation of the American nightmare, the country stripped to its essence where kitsch and injustice lived side by side something far more subterranean, exquisite, tragic and transcending. I would not know all of this until years later when I would periodically visit Reza to catch up on his latest plays. We would end up in haunts that on the surface where invisible. LA, I realized, was much like Tehran, another mega-city that I had returned to and had been living in for some years. These cities lived via parallels. There was the life above ground and over the facades of a Westwood, a Santa Monica or a Downtown, and then there was another world where, among other things, astonishing art happened. I was struck and awed by these polarities and finally understood why Reza thrived in LA as he did – it gave him endless material in the sprawl of its garishness and its beauties. I understood, but I still could not make my peace with LA the way Reza and Sid had. All three of us had known the hunger, the homelessness, the saw-toothed vulnerability of those early refugee years in this city. But whereas I’d walked away, griping, Reza had remained so that he could erect his craft out of the sludge of what was; he didn’t seek out or need anything more. The material was right here.
“The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice” was arguably the first work where Reza Abdoh crystallized his art to that point where vision and logistics could make a modicum of a shivering peace at last. Tom Fitzpatrick, Reza’s longtime actor, and Alan Mandell, the renowned Beckettian actor, were in this play. As was Juliana Francis Kelly who henceforth would become Reza’s principal actress in the legendary theater troupe, Dar A Luz, that he created.
What follows is a remarkable recollection by Juliana of that moment in time in LA when “Hip-Hop” came into being, juxtaposed with images of original notes by Reza for the play. —Salar Abdoh

 

Juliana Francis Kelly

 

1.

Dur­ing the first week of rehearsal, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er from the Los Ange­les Times arrived to take a por­trait of Reza to accom­pa­ny a pro­file on his work. There would be a spate of these arti­cles over the next few years. They often includ­ed a high con­trast, unsmil­ing pho­to of Reza on the set of the lat­est play, and were filled with phras­es like: “bad boy,” “wun­derkind” and “the enfant ter­ri­ble of sex and death.”

The pho­tog­ra­ph­er asked Reza to pose in front of the floor to ceil­ing strips of butch­er paper, on which he had writ­ten the out­line of “The Hip Hop Waltz of Eury­dice” in black Sharpie. The out­line was cryp­tic and poet­ic and most of it end­ed up chang­ing. It had stunned the leg­endary Beck­ett actor Alan Man­dell. Alan had cham­pi­oned Reza’s work since he had seen Reza’s “King Lear” staged in a gym sev­er­al years ear­li­er. With “Hip Hop” he had agreed to act for Reza for the first time.

      “Where’s the script?” Alan asked on the first day of rehearsal.

      “This is the script,” Reza answered, point­ing to the outline.

Alan looked skeptical.

But sun­light would shine through the strips of paper from about noon to three, mak­ing them look gold­en and more sub­stan­tial than they were.

“The Hip Hop Waltz of Eury­dice” wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen. L.A.T.C. had sched­uled Reza’s epic play “Bogey­man” for the win­ter of 1990. But L.A.T.C. hit a finan­cial snag; “Bogey­man” was expen­sive and abrupt­ly postponed.

I some­times won­der: was there a meet­ing in which Reza had come up with his vision of the Orpheus and Eury­dice myth on the spot? Or was it some­thing he had been sketch­ing out in one of his notebooks?

I also won­der: how do I write about a play that I was in, 32 years ear­li­er? My nerves once flashed with the play’s nerves. I mem­o­rized its bones. But I nev­er saw its face.

Drama­tis Personae

1. Alan Man­dell: “The Cap­tain.” After his ini­tial increduli­ty, Alan danced through a tour de force mono­logue, despite being enrobed in an enor­mous fat suit, and a syn­thet­ic red wig, his face stud­ded with pros­thet­ic lesions. 
2. Tom Fitz­patrick: “Eury­dice.” Tom was the longest serv­ing vet­er­an of Reza’s plays. He was often cast as night­mar­ish fathers, but his Eury­dice was wist­ful and delicate. 
3. Me: “Orpheus.” I got to be a man. But I didn’t play Orpheus as a man. I just tried to ful­fill the hero­ic actions that actress­es aren’t usu­al­ly asked to do. 
4. Bor­racha: “A Hound.” A capoeira mae­stro from Brazil, Bor­racha, who as a lit­tle kid had worked as a bar­ber on the streets of Rio. Besides co-cre­at­ing the fight sequences, Bor­racha brought ideas for dances and clown­ing that Reza inter­laced throughout. 
5, Joseli­to “Amen” San­tos: also “A Hound.” Borracha’s lan­guid part­ner in capoeira, who trans­formed into a mys­te­ri­ous milk­man in the play’s final scene.

One of a thou­sand things that breaks my heart about this play: much of Bor­racha and Amen’s per­for­mances occurred in the dim­mer light cues. While they were clear­ly vis­i­ble to the audi­ence, the video cam­era often only cap­tured a blur of move­ment, and the sparks fly­ing off their machetes.

 

“The Hip Hop Waltz” on stage with Juliana Fran­cis Kel­ly & Tom Fitzpatrick.

2.

I wasn’t the first choice to play Orpheus. A hand­some actor/singer/dancer who had played a mer­cury poi­soned four-year-old girl in Reza’s “Mina­ma­ta” had been cast. But this actor with­drew; the back to back shows he’d done for Reza had tak­en a toll and he need­ed a break.

I’d only done one of Reza’s shows before: “Father Was a Pecu­liar Man,” his New York debut. I was less than a year out of act­ing col­lege, and I’d quit my sup­port job (danc­ing in one of the last of the old, colos­sal drink hus­tle bars in Times Square) for the chance to per­form all sum­mer for free in Reza’s take on Dostoevsky’s “The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov.” I joined a 50-per­son cast on four filthy, cob­ble­stoned blocks in the not yet gen­tri­fied meat­pack­ing dis­trict.  By the time the show opened, I was entranced by Reza’s work, and so broke I had to dig out the big old rain­coat I’d used in col­lege to shoplift food. The inside of the coat’s pock­ets were con­ve­nient­ly shred­ded. I’d head to a gro­cery store, pick up a small round of cheese, a pack­et of crack­ers or a Swiss choco­late bar, and pull my arm up into the wide sleeve so both my hand and the cheese/crackers/chocolate dis­ap­peared. I’d slip my hand inside the shat­tered pock­et, and let my next meal drop soft­ly into the coat’s lining.

I rarely spoke to Reza dur­ing “Father…” He was busy. I was shy. But on the day we closed, I worked up the nerve to phone him and ask if he could rec­om­mend any Brecht poems for an audi­tion I was think­ing of attending.

      “Come to our apart­ment tomor­row before we leave,” Reza said.

This star­tled me. I thought he’d just sug­gest a title to search for. The next day I turned up to the artist hous­ing Reza had been shar­ing with his part­ner Bren­den for the dura­tion of the gig. Suit­cas­es, books, and box­es were strewn everywhere.

      “I hate pack­ing,” Reza said, smil­ing faint­ly. “I can nev­er do it.”

I sat down on the artist hous­ing sofa. Reza left the room then returned with a pack­et of pho­to­copied Brecht poems.

     “I think these are good poems for you,” he said. “Read the first one.”

The poem in my lap looked like a list, not a poem. I start­ed reading.

      “1. At night I am wok­en up, bathed in sweat, by a cough which stran­gles me. My room is too small. It is full of archangels…”

      “Vision in White” would end “The Hip Hop Waltz of Eury­dice.” Alan’s van­quished Cap­tain, stripped of his fat suit and his gar­ish wig, shuf­fled on the longest fade­out of lights I’ve ever seen. Wear­ing shab­by long under­wear and a fedo­ra frost­ed with ice, he recit­ed the full poem over a sound cue of howl­ing dogs and an old Eng­lish music hall song, “On Moth­er Kelly’s doorstep, down Par­adise Row…” that sound­ed like it was being sung by a dying man.

“The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eury­dice,” l‑to‑r Joseli­to Amen San­tos, Juliana Fran­cis Kel­ly, Tom Fitz­patrick and Borracha.

3.

We entered “tech,” the final days of rehearsal that stretch to 12 hours so the stage man­ag­er and the design­ers can test the set pieces and build hun­dreds of sound and light cues. Tech is an exhaust­ing but dream­like place. Dur­ing tech, I wrote my ini­tials on the upstage side of the set. I’d had a high school sweet­heart who’d been jailed more than once. The first time, he wrote his name on the wall, and an old­er pris­on­er told him that writ­ing your name on the wall meant you’d sealed your fate: you’d be back.

I nev­er want­ed to leave this the­ater, so I fig­ured it was worth a shot.

Tom Fitz­patrick and I had both shaved our heads by then to show how light would bounce off our white make­up smeared scalps. (By the end of the run, coached by for­mer child bar­ber Bor­racha, I got ridicu­lous­ly fast at shav­ing. I’d sit on my dress­ing room counter and tear at my head with a dry razor.)

Tech end­ed. We start­ed pre­views: two weeks of pub­lic per­for­mances with rehearsals dur­ing the day to con­tin­ue shap­ing the play.

After a Tues­day night show, Reza and Bren­den came to my dress­ing room. Reza had notes.

Reza always had notes. He’d watch every show, pac­ing in the dark behind the last row of seats, some­times chew­ing on the back of his hand. Stage man­agers had to keep an eye on him before shows began, as he’d often head back­stage to give an actor a note min­utes before the first entrance with­out telling any­one else. If the actor took the note no one else knew about, things could go bad­ly wrong.

Before Reza took out his note­book, Bren­den sat down on the edge of the reg­u­la­tion Actors Equi­ty cot, and said, “You are going to be on the cov­er of Amer­i­can The­ater Mag­a­zine! They are doing a fea­ture about the show.”

I embraced them both, tak­ing care not to smear white make­up on their shoul­ders. Then I blurt­ed out a plan I’d come up with the week before.

     “Hey… if this sounds like some­thing you would like — I thought I could have a baby for you. That could be real­ly cool, yes?”

It made per­fect sense to me. I had always want­ed to be a mom. And this would be a the­ater baby. We could take this baby on the road to all the the­aters and fes­ti­vals that were glim­mer­ing on the hori­zon, these fan­tas­ti­cal places that would invite this play and the next play and the one after that to tri­umph here, there, and every­where. Heck, the baby could be in all the shows too. What a life.

Reza and Bren­den lis­tened polite­ly to my plan. Reza didn’t say any­thing and Bren­den nod­ded. So I shut up about the baby. But I con­tin­ued imag­in­ing it. I’d con­jure its warmth on my chest after every show.

4.

 “Our” issue of Amer­i­can The­ater would be released on open­ing night.

 Reza and Bren­den host­ed a par­ty in their Venice Beach town­house, two blocks from the Pacif­ic Ocean. The sky was black and star­less, the air was cool and smelled of euca­lyp­tus leaves. The cast and crew were gid­dy. It had been so hard, and we’d pulled it off. Exclud­ing our two trea­sures, Alan and Tom, almost all of us were in our ear­ly twen­ties. Stu­pid­ly young and com­plete­ly unpre­pared for what was head­ed for us.

At the par­ty, we danced like fiends to “Groove is in the Heart” by Dee-Lite.

                                                DJ Soul was on a roll

                                                I’ve been told he can’t be sold

                                                He’s not vicious or malicious

                                                Just de-love­ly and delicious

                                                I could­n’t ask for another

Actor Alan Man­dell in “The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice.”

Before I flung myself ful­ly into danc­ing, I slipped by Reza to get a bot­tle of seltzer water. An impor­tant look­ing guy had just but­ton­holed him, pre­sum­ably to share his thoughts about the play. The impor­tant look­ing guy noticed me.

     “Juliana!” He said my name like he already knew me and was swing­ing open the door to some fan­cy estate he owned in some fan­cy ass place. 

Reza intro­duced us. The man was a play­wright. I wait­ed for him to say some­thing nice about the per­for­mance. But instead, he turned to Reza.

      “I want her for my next play.” The play­wright said.

       “Well — you can’t have her.” Reza answered.

        “Excuse me, I real­ly like this song, so… Nice to meet you!” I beamed my widest Times Square drink hus­tle bar smile at the play­wright and escaped.

Two hours lat­er, we dancers were sweaty and deliri­ous, stomp­ing around to “Pump up the Jam” when some­one car­ried in a stack of the Amer­i­can The­ater magazine.

      “The MAGAZINE is here!” some­one shrieked. 

We raced to the stack. Raul, who had designed the sound, took out a pen knife and cut away the plas­tic ties. Every­one grabbed a copy.

       “I look FUCKING CROSS EYED!” I yelled.

I found the arti­cle. It seemed briefer than I thought a cov­er sto­ry should be. I began read­ing in the dim light, the music still bang­ing on: “Make My Day /Make My Day/ Make My Day…”

That’s when I read it.

     “I am an artist liv­ing with AIDS.”

5.

We per­formed “The Hip Hop Waltz of Eury­dice” for six more weeks in Los Ange­les. I nev­er spoke to Reza or Bren­den about the arti­cle. But the sen­tence “I am an artist liv­ing with AIDS” lived in the air above my head like an ech­e­lon of birds.

 Less than four years lat­er, after we had been to all of the fes­ti­vals, formed a com­pa­ny and made more shows, after I failed to per­form in Reza’s last two plays, I signed on for the final one: “A Sto­ry of Infamy.” Reza was grave­ly ill by that time. But I believed with all my stu­pid heart that if I did a good enough job in that play, he might decide not to die.

 Reza was placed on life sup­port on the first day of rehearsal. The show was can­celled. The actors were paid through the week and sent home.

Though he was only 32 at the time of his pass­ing, the Iran­ian-Amer­i­can the­ater direc­tor Reza Abdoh’s (1963–95) mark on the world of the­ater was unmis­tak­able. Relent­less­ly inven­tive, he pushed his actors—and audiences—to their lim­its amid ambi­tious, unusu­al, dis­ori­ent­ing stage sets. Abdoh’s aes­thet­ic lan­guage bor­rowed from fairy tales, BDSM, talk shows, raves, video art, and the his­to­ry of avant-garde the­ater. This exhi­bi­tion, the first large-scale ret­ro­spec­tive of Abdoh’s work, will high­light the diverse video works that Abdoh pro­duced for his per­for­mances and an instal­la­tion based on his 1991 pro­duc­tion Bogey­man. The exhi­bi­tion also includes con­tex­tu­al mate­ri­als reflect­ing the club scenes in both Los Ange­les and New York, the cul­ture wars of the Rea­gan era, and the AIDS cri­sis. Abdoh died of AIDS in 1995 (MoMA).

I vis­it­ed Reza in the hos­pi­tal. Bren­den and Tom were there. I watched Reza’s chest rise and fall with the breath­ing machine. I grasped his thin feet and whis­pered “hel­lo.”  Reza seemed rest­less, so Bren­den hand­ed him a small note­book and a pen. Reza wrote some things I couldn’t read, and one word that I could: “Italy.”

 I got to tell him about this episode a week lat­er, when I vis­it­ed him at home after he’d been released from the hospital.

       “Real­ly?” he said.

 Four weeks lat­er, he was gone.


6.

If I think back (though it isn’t real­ly “back” — it’s more like slip­ping into a world that runs par­al­lel to this one) I can find one moment in each show that I believe gave Reza real joy. In “Hip-Hop Waltz…” this moment arrived around week four.

We were already in the the­ater, a day or two before tech, but already work­ing with some of the set pieces and sound cues. Bor­racha, Amen, Tom and I were run­ning a sequence in which the set trans­formed from a mid­cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can bed­room into a mys­te­ri­ous cityscape, filled with thin, abstract­ed sky­scrap­ers that we rolled on and off as Eury­dice was dragged into Hell. As Eury­dice dis­ap­peared, I grabbed a ham­mer, swung it through the air at Borracha.

We stop, stare at each oth­er, I retreat with­out harm­ing him. Alan enters as the Cap­tain and Hell triumphs.

 Reza had set a cue for the sequence: indus­tri­al music punc­tu­at­ed by Orpheus and Eurydice’s pan­icked breath­ing. We ran the sequence again and again. Reza seemed rest­less. Then he sud­den­ly ducked down, pulled a CD with a Post-it note stuck on it from his bag, and yelled:

      “Raul! Can you add this to the part with the hammer?”

Raul came down from the booth, got the CD, then returned to cue it up.

        “From near the end please, where Juliana first gets the ham­mer.” Reza called to us onstage.

I grabbed the ham­mer and began swing­ing it as I moved towards Bor­racha. The indus­tri­al sound­scape reced­ed and a thread of Mozart’s Requiem snaked in. Bor­racha leapt out in then out of a head­stand, we hit our marks, and stared at each other.

The Mozart changed every­thing. The moment became com­plete, a world onto itself, filled with a ter­ri­ble, angel­ic beau­ty that reflect­ed the shards of Rilke Reza had painstak­ing­ly placed through­out the play.

Reza was thrilled.

 

Alan MandellAmerican theatre scenehip hopIranian American artistsJuliana Francis KellyReza AbdohtheatreTom Fitzgerald

Juliana Francis Kelly is an OBIE Award winning actor, a playwright, and a doll maker. She was a founding member of Reza Abdoh’s internationally acclaimed Dar A Luz Company. Juliana has originated roles for many legendary and emerging theatre and film artists, including Richard Foreman, Marie Losier (in collaboration with Guy Maddin) Young Jean Lee, and Normandy Sherwood. She has performed for audiences across the U.S. with The Theater of War, most recently in “King Lear” with James Earl Jones, and has participated in theatre workshops for incarcerated men, women, and teenagers in Chicago and New York. Other recent work includes two premieres for director Karin Coonrod: “Babette’s Feast” at Portland Stage and “text & beheadings/Elizabeth R” at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and “The Return of Tragedy” at the Venice Film Festival for filmmaker Bertrand Mandico. Juliana’s own plays have been produced in New York, London, Athens, and Kiel, and translated into four languages. She builds mix media dolls, one of whom resides in the American Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Room.

Salar Abdoh is an Iranian novelist and essayist who divides much of his time between New York and Tehran. He is the author of the novels Poet Game (2000), Opium (2004), Tehran At Twilight (2014), and Out of Mesopotamia (2020) and the editor and translator of the anthology Tehran Noir (2014). He also teaches in the graduate program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York at the City University of New York. Abdoh seeks to help Iran re-engage with the Arab world and convey more of Iranian culture to the west. He is a TMR contributing editor. Salar Abdoh at Goodreads.