Reza Jalali apologizes whenever he talks about his play “The Poets and the Assassin.”
“I feel guilty as a man that I wrote this play,” he said. “It should have been written by a woman. It’s an untold story that needs to be told.”
The play, which will be presented three times this week in Portland and Brunswick, is a history of Iranian women told through five monologues. It highlights the strengths and struggles of what Jalali calls “one of the most misunderstood groups of people in the world.”
In the eyes and minds of many people in the West, Iranian women are obedient, passive and silent. Jalali, who left Iran in exile more than 30 years ago, said that image is false. “Iranian women have always been in the forefront of the national struggle for independence, liberty and justice, and protesting for and demanding their rights,” said Jalali, who works as special projects coordinator in the honors program at the University of Southern Maine.
USM will host the play at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14 at Talbot Hall in Portland. It will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday at Kresge Auditorium in the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick, and at 7 p.m. Friday at Osher Hall at Maine College of Art.
The play is an effort to humanize Iranian women, who are caught between traditionalism and modernity.
For MECA, presenting the play addresses a part of the school’s strategic plan that calls for a greater focus on diversity, said Dietlind Vander Schaaf, MECA’s development officer. “We see this play as an opportunity to bring this particular set of voices and perspective around a timely subject into the school,” she said.
Since Space Gallery hosted the play in 2015, the political climate has become more hostile to Muslims. Shiva Darbandi, the library director at MECA and co-chair of the college’s diversity committee, said the play is timely for Portland on many levels. It’s good to present a picture of Iranian women that is more complete than the image that exists in most Western media, she said, and it’s also important to have a conversation about diversity and acceptance in Portland.
Darbandi left Iran when she was 4 and settled in California with her mother. She moved to Portland in 2016 for the job at MECA and because Portland was a good place to raise a family.
She has encountered what she calls “a kinder and more welcoming racism” in Portland than elsewhere, but it’s still racism and still hurtful, she said. During the First Friday Art Walk earlier this month, Darbandi was distributing information about the play when someone berated her about her religion. While waiting for a bus recently, she was verbally assaulted by a man who said “he was tired of people coming into Portland and taking jobs.”
In both instances, the interactions “hurt me to my core and deeply saddened me,” she said.
The play, she added, can help spread understanding about Islam. “Islam can be beautiful. Its teachings can be so kind and encouraging. I am not deeply religious, but I have found comfort back to Islam with the changes in the political climate,” she said. “I wish more people would recognize it as a religion of kindness of peace.”
WHEN, WHERE & HOW MUCH:
7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 14, Talbot Lecture Hall, Luther Bonney Hall, 85 Bedford St., Portland, free; 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 15, Kresge Auditorium, Visual Arts Center, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, free; 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, Osher Hall, Maine College of Art, 522 Congress St., Portland, free.