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Monday, July 18, 2011

Persepolis, Texas Tells Us About Ourselves via a Persian Drag Queen from the South

Posted By on Mon, Jul 18, 2011 at 11:30 AM

Maryam Farnaz Rostami
  • Maryam Farnaz Rostami
Drape yourself in black. Stare in the mirror. Put on some fake eyelashes. Now put on your favorite song. Look side to side, up and down, blink to the beat and melody of the music. Dance only with your eyes. How long did it take you to smile?

The most poignant scene in Persepolis, Texas -- performed over the weekend at CounterPULSE -- is performance artist and local drag queen Maryam Farnaz Rostami doing just that (wearing the iconic drag queen eyelashes). Yet she is constricted physically by her full chador, and ideologically by so much more. She does not break into a grin. It is tragic, but she gives her audience permission to laugh.

It's one of numerous characters Rostami embodies in the performance, subtitled FOBspring to Drag Queen in One Generation. (FOBspring stands for "fresh-off-the-boat offspring.") Rostami lures us into her world and lets us in on a secret: Identity is constructed, and the exploration of it is hilarious.

Rostami, as her drag queen persona Mona G. Hawd, reveals this truth about the human situation through the portrayal of 10 characters in a nonlinear style intimately connected to her own experience of being Iranian, raised in a Texan suburb, and ultimately becoming a drag queen in San Francisco. She earnestly performed each inflated character in a manner that's pure, and she seamlessly transitioned from one to another, aided by well-planned costume changes, video, and a varied soundtrack, all the while wearing those iconic eyelashes as if to make sure we didn't forget her main act. She explored her implications of origin, its potentially inevitable exoticism, and the potential to construct her own identity.

It is decidedly camp, but camp at its highest level.

The Saturday night show was packed with a diverse crowd ranging in age, gender, and ethnicity, a definite majority of the audience being nonwhite - people with strong identities, intentionally or unintentionally, either born or constructed. The guy next to me wore two pairs of neon eyeglasses stacked on top of each other, and there were some Persian women behind me. This begged the question, what is exotic to an audience whose members are themselves considered exotic? The environment made the performance more powerful -- a chuckle became a wave of laughter; a hint of understanding (Farsi) became an knowing nod and smirk from many.

The performance is delightful because it hinted at but didn't force a mutual understanding. We recognized each of the characters not because we have known them, but because they were delicately condensed and presented so poignantly. There is no judgment on these characters (the Persian Girl, the Texan, Uncle, Aunt, Kid, Mona G. Hawd, Suburban Mom, Preacher/Healer, Hejabi Woman, and Googosh), however silly, offensive, or confused that they might be. Instead, a gentle playfulness highlighted their construction.
Audience members laughed at the Persian Girl's obsession with female maintenance, not because they disapprove but because it rings true and is so ridiculous. When the Texan says "I'd die for this land, I would," the lights dim allowing for the realization that we might feel the same way despite our differences. (The move silenced the audience.) When the Aunt says (asking about Maryam) "Is she married? Does she have kids?" viewers seemed to understand why it was funny, possibly recalling similar statements from their own lives. So many of us, especially in this city, come from somewhere else and has experienced the sensation of certain expectations or idealizations of what we are from those that knew us way back when.
  • Cailin Holmes
Rostami's characters became more powerful and nuanced as the show progressed. When Mona G. Hawd took the stage the suspense buildt because there was a more complicated layer of identities - this drag queen is real, and she was performing. When the Hejabi Woman put on her chador and danced hilariously with just her eyes, the tension broke, but only to build up again when Rostami left the stage. A video of her face remained, against a black background, accompanied by an intense wind soundscape. Then everything blacked out.

We next saw Rostami's silhouette as she put on hooker heels, an extravagant head piece, and dress to transition into Googosh, a well-known Iranian pop singer and icon. The climax was Googosh singing "Mordab" passionately and desperately, not unlike Edith Piaf's performance in La Vie en Rose. It was not a display of vanity but a conscious celebration of a chosen temporary identity and all its implications. Rostami's performance was euphoric and uplifting.

Where we come from informs our identity, but ultimately, who we are, who we think we are, and how we are perceived is more complicated. Persepolis, Texas playfully highlights these difficult truths and helps us deal with it in our own, joyful way.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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Stephanie Echeveste


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