Hussein prepares to meet his death in Ta'ziyeh
(Photo: Peter Chelkowski)
Hussein prepares to meet his death in Ta'ziyeh
(Photo: Peter Chelkowski)
Although musicals, operas, and other forms of theater with live singing and instumental accompaniment abound in most countries, in the Muslim world there is just one kind of musical theater. Called Ta'ziyeh, it is found only in Iran and is now being presented in the United States for the first time ever as part of New York City's Lincoln Center Festival.

"It is the story of Hussein, the grandson of Mohammed, when he came from Medina to Kufa," explains Ta'ziyeh director Mohammad Ghaffari. "In the desert, they fought with him and killed him and all the people who were with him; they burned their tents and took their women and children. This is a series of stories that come out of that story, which are about Hussein, his son, his brother, his brother's son, and his cousin who goes before him. There are a vast variety of plays--150 of them, almost." Of that 150, only a handful are presented regularly; in Iran they are performed as a ritual during the holy month of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein. Three of these Ta'ziyehs will be seen by Lincoln Center audiences in the coming weeks: "Hor", "Children of Moslem", and "Imam Hussein."

Part of being a Ta'ziyeh director is figuring out exactly how to present these stories. Having grown up watching them being performed in Iran, Ghaffari has a broad knowledge of the plays that helps him to effectively adapt them for performance. "Many different people wrote these texts--some of them we know who they are, some of them we don't know," he says. "The music is different, some scenes are different, so I take from different places; I choose the scenes that I like and put them together. These plays, they are very flexible."

To bring Ta'ziyeh to America, Ghaffari assembled a large group of performers, most of them professional Ta'ziyeh actors and musicians. "They're not a troupe," notes the director. "I chose people from different places because sometimes you have one good singer in one city and another in another city. These actors, they have been trained since childhood because they start playing when they are five, six, or seven." Indeed, Ta'ziyeh is a family tradition for many of them. As Professor William Beeman explained in a recent Works & Process series discussion at the Guggenheim, actors begin playing children's roles when they are young, graduating to heroes or villains and on into older parts as they age further. An actor can spend his whole life playing Ta'ziyeh, and many of those participating in the Lincoln Center productions have.

"I just went to greet the first arrivals," enthused Lincoln Center Festival artistic director Nigel Redden in a phone interview with TheaterMania only two weeks before Ta'ziyeh performances were to begin. "I think they feel it is very important to be here. I'm not sure the reconciliation between Iran and the United States is in the works politically, but they feel that this is going to say a lot to America."

Ta'ziyeh(Photo: Peter Chelkowski)
Ta'ziyeh
(Photo: Peter Chelkowski)
Redden, who was with the Lincoln Center Festival at its inception and has been its artistic director for the last five years, first saw Ta'ziyeh when Ghaffari directed a version in Paris. "One of the goals of the festival," he says, "was to really expand the definition of culture at what is arguably the center of culture in America--certainly, of performing arts culture in America. During this two-and-a-half-week period, we can expand the definition of Lincoln Center to be inclusive of other cultures.

"I realized a couple of years ago that I knew very little about what was going on in the Islamic world," Redden continues. "I had heard about Ta'ziyeh and saw a performance and was intrigued by it and felt that this was something that we really should be doing here. It's work that I feel is appealing on a humane, emotional level. It's work that gives an insight, a glimpse into a culture that is pretty foreign to most of us here."

Unfortunately, Ta'ziyeh's U.S. premiere was somewhat marred by the news that several of Ghaffari's performers were being denied visas. Redden explains that "performers come in under, I think, a P-3 Visa--I can't quote the language of the law--but, essentially, the assumption is that the people who apply for these will be at risk of overstaying their visas and remaining here as economic refugees, so they have to demonstrate that they won't. This is true for actors whether they come from London, Paris, or Tehran, so it's not [just] about actors from Iran. Of the people who are performing, some were between jobs, some had relatively low-paying jobs, and apparently people don't keep bank accounts in Iran the way that they might in the United States, so they don't have the documents that would demonstrate that they've got the assets back home that would make them want to return. But I also think, quite obviously, that people coming from Iran are under special scrutiny."

"My group was 28; now I have 18 or 19," says Ghaffari. "It is unfortunate." Yet, while the troubles have diminished the group's numbers and caused delays in the arrival of the remaining performers, Ta'ziyeh will go on as planned. Some dates have been changed, but the only major alteration was a change in one of the Ta'ziyehs being performed: The originally announced "Qusem" has been replaced with "The Children of Moslem." Hopefully, the significantly shortened rehearsal time for the performers won't be a hindrance to what is, to say the least, an elaborate performance involving battles, horseback riding, and lots of animals.

"The way Ta'ziyeh is performed in Iran varies," says Redden. "There are Ta'ziyeh theaters, which have a performance space in the middle surrounded by a ring for horses and other animals. The other way the Ta'ziyeh is performed is outdoors in what would be, effectively, a courtyard. We had toyed with the idea of doing it outside but, one, there's the problem of the heat; it's hot in Iran but it's not damp the way that it is here, and they are wearing armor and fighting on horseback. So we decided to move it into Damrosch Park, in a tent that to some extent reproduces one of those smaller Ta'ziyeh theaters."

From the layout of the performance space to the battle scenes, Ta'ziyeh is a drama vastly different from what American theatergoers are accustomed to. "Everything is stylized," says Ghaffari. "The plays are poetry. The protagonists sing in the Persian raga, which is based on Persian classic music. The antagonists recite their parts." There is also a color code: The bad guys wear red and the good guys wear green. (An exception in "Hor," in which the protagonists wear yellow.)

A Ta'ziyeh performance in Shiraz, Iran
(Photo: Peter Chelkowski)
A Ta'ziyeh performance in Shiraz, Iran
(Photo: Peter Chelkowski)
The music that accompanies Ta'ziyeh is relatively simple, consisting of drums and trumpet, but it's stirring. And the singing of the protagonists is raw and powerful. After one actor performed a particularly moving selection from "Hor" at the Works & Process presentation, the audience applauded appreciatively; this prompted a member of the discussion panel, Professor Peter Chelkowski, to remark that an Iranian audience would never think to applaud because they see Ta'ziyeh as a religious ritual.

The most fascinating thing about Ta'ziyeh is its status as the Islamic world's only indigenous form of music theater. But how did it evolve? "I suppose there were plays before and they wanted to preserve the theater form, so they changed the stories to stories of Shi'ite Moslem people," says Ghaffari, who adds that Ta'ziyeh is only indigenous to Iran: "You don't have it in India, where there are like 60 million Moslems; you don't have it in Indonesia, and they have 100 million Shi'ite Moslems. It's just an Iranian thing."

Now, this form of Iranian epic drama will finally be seen by American audiences, who will no doubt welcome a look at something hitherto unknown and unseen in this country. "For the most part, we have been pretty oblivious to work from that part of the world," says Redden. "We know a lot of Western European culture; we know a little of Asian culture; we know something of African culture, not much of South American. I think it's sort of wonderful there is so much left to explore in the world."