Writer and Performer: Nassim Soleimanpour
The Cultch, Historical Theatre
May 7-18, 2019
Audience expectations are undone again and again in Nassim, an experimental performance work by Nassim Soleimanpour, staged at the Cultch from May 7 to 19. The premise is simple, in the vein of previous works by Soleimanpour, including White Rabbit, Red Rabbit (2010). Every night, a different performer takes the stage to present the work, having never laid eyes on the script. I attended the showing featuring Adam Grant Warren, whose sense of humour and lightness were a welcome complement to Soleimanpour's playful, loosely scripted participatory performance.
Unlike in his previous works, in Nassim, Soleimanpour joins the guest performer onstage as the play's title character. Although driven by the unique delivery of each night's guest actor, the play retains a few important constants from one performance to the next. Questions about language, culture, and autobiography loom large in the more scripted sections of the show. Interspersed with English and Farsi narration of the childhood of a future playwright named Nassim, the performance is structured around scenes in which the guest performer, volunteers, and the audience at large are challenged to learn words and then entire phrases in Farsi.
The language-learning aspect of the show's audience participation allows Nassim to achieve a rare distinction. It succeeds in telling an English-speaking audience a story in a language other than English without closing down the audience's engagement with the sections staged in that other language. Nassim neither oversimplifies the messages conveyed in the performance's Farsi sections, nor renders its Farsi-speaking roles one-dimensionally foreign. Instead, the work demands a high level of engagement with its Farsi storytelling while also putting the audience (or at least, its non-Farsi-speaking majority) in the childlike position of not yet having mastery over the language.
At one point Soleimanpour asks the audience to suggest particularly difficult English words for him to learn, under the thin pretense of improving his fluency. The direction is delivered in flawless English (through a live projection of Soleimanpour's script onto a screen onstage), and the exercise proves to reveal much more about the audience than it does about him. As the audience deliberates, Soleimanpour flips through a notebook, revealing the words that previous audiences have offered. "Discombobulate" and "antidisestablishmentarianism," a couple of the suggestions on the night I attended, end up being repeat offenders, suggested with an uncanny frequency by audiences around the world. Is this moment a sign of our limited imaginations, the play seems to ask us, or might it signal the possibility of meaningful similarities and connections between us and these audiences across the globe? The question has a sense of urgency: "impeachment" fills up row after row on the pages that represent Nassim's New York performances.
Scenes like this one pull apart the ruse of autobiography in the play. Nassim refuses the racialized expectations that audiences so often bring to works written by people of colour, i.e. that they can be best understood through an autobiographical lens or as an authentic window into a minoritized perspective. Despite carrying Soleimanpour's name, Nassim should not be mistaken for a person of colour telling his story "authentically" in his own voice. Except for a brief moment at the end of the show, Soleimanpour himself never speaks a word. All his instructions to the guest performer and the audience come in the form of gestures as well as through the projections of the script onscreen. Even sections purportedly narrating Soleimanpour's own childhood, family relationships, and experiences of censorship in Iran are voiced by the guest actor, occasionally with the help of volunteers. Instead of offering us an easily consumable life story, the performance implicates us and invites us to reflect on language as it divides us from one another and as it brings us together.
This is especially true of Nassim's final scene featuring a live phone call in Farsi with Soleimanpour's mother, who is at home in Iran. According to the script, the call is meant to give Soleimanpour's mother a chance to experience his plays, which have never been staged in Iran in his mother tongue. Onstage with Soleimanpour, Warren voices Nassim's half of the conversation with hesitation, in the limited Farsi he has learned during the performance, while Soleimanpour's mother responds in real time as though to her son. The scene is open and inviting in its appeal to universals—longing, homesickness, love for one's mother—but preserves a very real sense of discomfort at this intrusion into Soleimanpour's actual family life, especially when Soleimanpour himself picks up the phone at the end to say a few words to his mother.
Both intimacy and alienation shape this experience, which more or less sums up what it is to participate in this theatrical experiment. Masquerading as autobiography, but giving little weight to authenticity, Nassim declines at every turn to make the predictable choice. The result is both challenging and richly rewarding.