Review of “One” (PuSH Festival) at The Cultch (January 29, 2014)

I was a bit apprehensive about how I would like this one-man show, as I have experienced some autobiographical one-person shows that seemed tedious and self-absorbed. It’s a hazard of the genre. But I had no need to worry about this play, written and acted by Mani Soleymanlou. His perspective is outward-facing, and his self-examination is informed and questioning, I recommend seeing it if you are interested in cultural mixing, the formation of identity, or just simply in Iran.

Here’s the trailer, although in my opinion the actual performance is better.

Mani Soleymanlou, born in Iran in 1982, has lived in Paris, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. He is a francophone who is not of French ethnic descent, but this is more typical than not. He attended a French-language high school in Toronto with 350 students from 82 countries.

Like most immigrant and many non-immigrant Canadians, Mani maintained strong ties to his country of birth. His family went to Iran every summer for over 2 months. He described how his mother, just before she would board the plane to Iran, would go and change, coming out with a grim expression, and her body covered in a shapeless black coat, with a black headdress that covered her hair. He delighted in the love and affection of his extended family in Iran, but he also experienced scary moments like missiles hitting Tehran. But after age 15, Mani did not visit again, as he would not have been allowed to leave the country from age 16, and he would have been conscripted at age 18.

The play really starts to come alive as Mani describes his experience of the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009, which he observed through watching hundreds of videos on the Internet. Given the bloodshed of the Iran/Iraq war during the 1980s, during which many child soldiers were conscripted and quickly died, the government had urged a high birth rate. Thus, Iran has a population of which 70% is under age 34 (given Ayatollah Khomeini came back in 1979 and led the Islamic Revolution that has held Iran in its grip ever since). Mani gave a brief overview of how the Shah was installed in 1953 by the CIA and MI6 because the current ruler had been thinking of nationalizing the oil industry (my note: this is remarkably similar to Guatemala’s story in 1954, except no oil was involved in that country). The Shah’s harsh rule and the growing poverty of the country made him very unpopular, paving the way for the Ayatollah, with false promises of modernity, to install an Islamist regime.

Mani described some iconic cases, such as the woman who was shot in the heart while standing next to her father: Neda Agha-Soltan. Mani said repeatedly that given his separation from the country, he felt he could no longer call himself Iranian. After all, he was not personally experiencing this revolution. I felt that he clearly alluded to the idea that if he’s not Iranian, what exactly is he? Mani seems comfortable as a Canadian as a Quebecois, but the play originated from a Quebec television show, where every Monday a Quebec artiste from a “diverse” cultural background is featured. Mani was featured, and the play arose from that.

In the play, Mani alluded to one of his first, and continuing, friends in Canada, a Jewish girl named Rebecca. He alluded to her again when mentioning Ahmadinejad (whose fraudulent “election” sparked the revolution of 2009), who has famously denied the Holocaust. The point, as Mani stated in the talkback, is that Ahmadinejad’s harmful influence extended beyond Iran, and hurt his friend.

The set consists of freestanding chairs, like you might see in a meeting room. I counted 42. Mani moves from chair to chair, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. He is funny (parts of this play could be stand-up comedy), but of course also intense and serious.

Talkback

Mani was forthright in the talkback, and gave thoughtful answers to all the questions, even ones that seemed like “gotcha” requests for explication of complex geopolitical and social issues. He described the experience of doing this play in French (not surprisingly, it is called “Un”), and how it differs from doing the play in English. He wants a secular state (his parents fled an Islamic state because they didn’t want their children to grow up in such a society), but he feels the Quebec charter has been wrongly presented. (I’m sure this is an insufficient summary of his nuanced response.)  

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