The young man at the window turns to the American, the older man on a half-official visit, and says ‘did you learn anything about my country before you came here?’ If we could look through the window with him, we might see the wide boulevards that replaced the open marketplace 40 years ago, the long fountain walk outside the tapered brick of the national museum, the mountains on the horizon — but we can’t see what he sees.
His question echoed for me all through Brent Askari’s Andy Warhol in Iran at Barrington Stage Company. I came in excited and curious. I know Askari’s work, and I respect him; we talked together before a world premiere play of his here before. American Underground offered an alternate all-too-possible future that felt dark, human and honest, calling out stereotypes and assumptions, especially about what Arab Americans experience and believe.
BSC presents this new work as a meeting that leads to trust between two people who have deep reasons not to trust each other, or at least a recognition of reality that shakes loose their preconceptions — and puts them into a space where they are human and close together.
Andy Warhol comes to Tehran in 1970, at the height of his fame, and near the end of his life. And he is thrown together with a young man who has seen his country and his family taken apart under American influence. Their contact could strike a real spark. The potential is there, in their perspectives and their need. Nima Rakhshanifar plays the young man in the hotel with an understanding and depth beyond his constrained script. But we never learn his experiences with the stark reality that Warhol gives us when he talks about the bizarre pain of his childhood illness. We never even learn the young man’s name.
Henry Stram is convincing as Andy Warhol. He is in his 40s — financially successful, known around the world and in many ways alone. The play bluntly bares the emptiness of his life. When people want to get to know him, he says, he tells them there’s nothing under the surface. He is making a joke out of shallowness, and he is condeming himself for it.
He is painting portraits of dictators and trying to argue that politics is abstract to people who have been beaten and broken by governmental police. He is spending two weeks in Tehran ordering caviar from room service. He is making films of young New Yorkers who are falling apart, appropriating their anguish and provoked into odd moments of empathy.
But the young man who comes in to serve him lunch — What do we know about him? He was a child when the American and British governments staged a coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, he tells us, and ended Democratic government in Iran. He speaks fluent English. He has studied in America as an exchange student. He has protested in both countries and been imprisoned, and he wears the scars. But how have those experiences shaped him? Who is he beyond these few blunt sentences?
I think of Ansari as deeply concerned with exposing assumptions about what causes violence and what stands against it, what is humane and what is radical. And so I was doubly shaken when the young man came in enacting a stereotype, playing the kind of role American media often assumes a young Middle Eastern man will play.
Understand, I’m talking about the character. Rakhshanifar plays him with strength and generosity and nuance in a role that gives him very little detail to work with. He carries the young man’s integrity and passion for freedom, his courage. He is trapped in a system of secrecy and antagonism he doesn’t want and can’t sustain.
But his family, his passions, his experiences, his home — for them he only has short, general phrases to give us. I was at that protest. I miss my father. I’m in pain.
Warhol will ask him questions, and the young man will say I’ve already told you too much and turn away. He never gets to tell us the anwsers. What would it be like to be an exchange student from Iran to the mid-Atlantic states in the years of Martin Luther King and Vietnam? What would it be like to be at a protest a few streets from where you have lived all your life and get arrested, and lose half your familiar world or more overnight?
When he studies literature, he quotes T.S. Eliot (and never even has a chance to tell us why). What would he have grown up reading, in what languages? What are the 1970s equivalents of Instagram and graphic novels … Would he be reading daily newspapers over coffee, or the poems of Hafiz, or contemporary Persian writers in his own country, like Forugh Farrokhzad igniting controversy as a woman with a voice (in Sholeh Wolpe’s translation)
‘The clock took flight.
The curtain withdrew with the wind.
I had pressed him to myself
inside the halo of that fire …’
The young man says heritage matters, and I want to know his heritage, how he would define it, and what it means to him. I want to hear it in his dreams and convictions, and even his slang — the whole web of experiences that make up a culture, language, pop culture, music, food — the thousands of casual interactions that make up a lifetime. Do you know how to use the metro without a map or how to pick ripe figs, do you drink your coffee black with cardamom, do you rap to Hamilton in the shower or sing along to Fairuz …
Warhol can tell us his life in glimpses, and we have a background for understanding it. He can tell us that he never wanted to sound Polish, that he has taken the ‘a’ off the end of his name, and we understand the difficult shame of an immigrant child desperately wanting to blend in — he can tell us that his father died when he was 14 from drinking tainted water on a work site in Pittsburgh, and we can hear the background of union fights in a steel industrial city.