Heather Raffo heard a common theme as she ran theater workshops with Middle Eastern women in Manhattan a few years ago. The women — none theater people — kept telling stories of leaving households, leaving countries. So Raffo asked the group to adapt part of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”
“All of them wanted to write the leaving scene,” Raffo says of Nora’s famous marital exit, long ago dubbed “the door slam heard round the world.” “And all of them said, if you did this in the Middle East, you’d be dead. You can’t just up and leave.”
That kick-started Raffo’s “Noura,” a world premiere at the Shakespeare Theatre Company that’s one of the most promising of Washington’s two dozen Women’s Voices Theater Festival shows continuing this month. Raffo, whose mother is American and whose father is from Iraq, proved her culture-straddling ability with her widely toured “9 Parts of Desire,” a solo show giving voice to Iraqi women displaced by war.
“She’s got the protean gift,” Washington Post critic Peter Marks wrote when “9 Parts” came to Arena Stage in 2006.
With “Noura,” which started Tuesday at the STC’s Lansburgh Theatre, Raffo is again playwright and actor but this time part of a cast of five. The drama uses “A Doll’s House” loosely: Raffo’s plot involves a well-established Iraqi immigrant family in New York taking in a 20-year-old refugee of Islamic State-driven violence. Though her experience is far from Nora’s stifling society and marriage in 1879, Raffo’s reality as a 47-year-old Brooklynite, married with children, also influences the play.
“The pressure cooker I see women who are my peers going through is so intense that I couldn’t help reading ‘A Doll’s House’ and being provoked,” Raffo says. “How could I feel all these things in a great marriage with great kids and a completely supportive husband?”
The modern lens on a classic was a winning ticket for the Shakespeare Theatre during the 2015 Women’s Voices festival, with Yaël Farber’s adaptation of “Salome” graduating to a run last year at London’s National Theatre. Like “Salome,” “Noura” is not merely an update but a contemporary culture clash.
“In my lifetime, I have seen Iraqis deeply change their identity,” Raffo says. “All the mixed neighborhoods, now they’re Sunni neighborhoods and Shia neighborhoods. The fabric of Baghdad is just fundamentally different than anything my family used to live in.”
Raffo had somewhere between 70 and 100 family members in Baghdad before the U.S. invasion in 2003; now she’s down to two.
“At some point during the occupation or post-occupation the threshold would get too difficult, and each made their own way out,” Raffo says. “The final threshold for the die-hards was ISIS taking Mosul” — her father’s birthplace.
“Because my family is Christian, it was a feeling they were no longer part of the fabric of Iraqi identity,” she says. “It wasn’t the fear that ISIS could do an atrocity — everybody knew that. It was, ‘Who let them do this?’ Houses of Christians were marked with the letter ‘N’ for Nazarene. All my research in Iraq had been that these were intertwined communities. There were pockets of fighting, but mostly they saw themselves as Iraqi. I felt a real shift.
“We’re not Iraqi anymore. A lot of this play is the loss of that.”
Noura by Heather Raffo. Through March 11 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Tickets $44-$118. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.