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Staging the disappeared: theater student explores international politics

students at dress rehearsal
January 14, 2014

Fatemeh Madani Sarbarani is breaking new ground in Latin American theater. As a doctoral student with a concentration in theatre and performance of the Americas within the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, she is building bridges across disciplines, cultures and historical periods.

Born in Hormouz, a small island in the Persian Gulf, Sarbarani grew up in a traditional Iranian community in which women were not permitted to work or receive a formal education. Fortunately, her family valued education for women and encouraged her from a young age, supporting her eventual decision to pursue studies at the University of Tehran.

“I have four sisters, and they are all educated with master's and doctoral degrees,” she says. When a friend abroad mailed her copies of works by influential Argentine author and playwright Griselda Gambaro, Sarbarani discovered her passion and became one of the first Iranian scholars to study Latin American theater.

Sarbarani and Tiffany Trent, a doctoral student in the Theatre for Youth program at ASU, co-directed a play by Griselda Gambaro in collaboration with Binary Theatre Company this November. In “The Walls” (“Las Paredes” in Spanish, 1963), a young man is arbitrarily detained and imprisoned in a seemingly ordinary house, where he endures psychological torture by two civil servants. As a symbol of the countless desaparecidos, or victims of forced disappearance during the period of state terrorism known as The Dirty War in Argentina, the protagonist’s traumatic experience dramatizes mechanisms of state violence, which are still employed today in some countries.

Sarbarani explains that Iran has endured decades of political violence since the 1979 Revolution. In the 1990s and 2000s, political dissidents, members of student movements and women’s rights activists have become targets of repression and forced disappearance, particularly during the widespread protests of the controversial results of the 2009 presidential election.

What has most inspired Sarbarani to draw connections between Iran and Argentina are the stories of resistance and strength emerging from women’s movements. When she met members of Mourning Mothers of Iran, which demands government accountability for the disappearance of their family members during the 2009 protests, Sarbarani observed striking similarities with Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the group of Argentine women who began marching in 1977 to denounce the disappearance of their children and the silencing of dissidents under Argentina’s military dictatorships.

Sarbarani’s two passions – theater criticism and political activism – coalesced as she explored the ways in which Gambaro’s plays resonate with her country’s precarious political climate. She published original Farsi translations of “The Walls” and other Gambaro plays.

“I wanted to show the Iranian people what was going on in Argentina and what we can do now in Iran to resist dictatorship, because we can use the same techniques to improve our situation and to provoke people into action,” she says.

Although her translations have been banned in Iran since the 2009 protests, Sarbarani has remained committed to her goals. After her professors encouraged her to apply for doctoral programs in Europe and the United States, Sarbarani now finds herself immersed in a vibrant community that encourages her to open new horizons in theory and performance.

Since its inception in 2006, ASU’s Theatre and Performance of the Americas doctorate remains one of very few programs of its kind in the United States.

“Theater departments usually mean Anglo-American theater and some well-known theatrical works from major European countries, with an occasional peripheral work thrown in,” explains David William Foster, a Regents’ Professor of Spanish and Women and Gender Studies in the School of International Letters and Cultures and member of the graduate faculty of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre. In contrast, he says, “The Theatre and Performance of the Americas program is representing Latin American and Chicano theater very well.”

Furthermore, he notes that Phoenix offers a particularly dynamic setting in which to study Latin American theater, due to its significant Hispanic population and thriving tourism industry.

“There is an advantage of studying theater in an area in which there is an enormous amount of theatrical activity going on,” he says.

Sarbarani believes the themes of “The Walls” are relevant to her diverse audience on multiple levels. She and co-director Trent inspire audience members to draw cross-cultural comparisons between Argentina and Iran through multimedia presentations. Photographs and news clips documenting events in both countries circulate while the play’s action unfolds. Sarbarani notes that the play’s allegorical structure, which allowed Gambaro to explore controversial topics without inciting the censorship of the Argentine government, also makes the performance significant to audiences all over the world.

“I think the setting of the play can be anywhere, not just Argentina or Iran. It can be seen from different perspectives – political, psychological or social – and apply to other kinds of violence, not just political,” Sarbarani says.

She also seeks to inform audiences about the situation in Iran and dispel common misconceptions about the Middle East.

“Sometimes reading or seeing theatre about something that happened in a place far away, if not long ago, helps one to see more clearly one's own circumstances, and I think Sarbarani is interested in that, both personally and professionally,” says Tamara Underiner, director of the Theatre and Performance of the Americas doctoral program and Sarbarani’s adviser. “As a translator, her work is important in introducing this perspective to her fellow Iranians. Conversely, as a theater director, her concept for staging the work here at ASU helps our students and community to understand a little more about what has been happening in Iran.”

For Gambaro as well as Sarbarani, the theatrical stage provides an optimal vehicle to inform, inspire and stir audiences into action.

“One of the advantages of theater is that it is live. The audience and the actors on stage are in contact with each other and interact,” Sarbarani explains. She sees theater as serving a double function: bringing realities to light while empowering audiences to take action. “For these reasons,” she says, “theater and art have an important role in revolution.”

Story by Vera Coleman