Tuesday, July 28, 2015

DEATH OF THE PERSIAN PRINCE: Human Rights Story Packs an Emotional Wallop

Gopal Divan and Pooya Mohseni
Photo provided by John Capo Public Relations

During the summer months, when the number of new theatrical openings on and off Broadway slows to a manageable handful, there is an outpouring of theatrical events that take place all over the city, with shows popping up for very brief runs in every available venue and at any odd hour under the auspices of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, FringeNYC, East to Edinburgh, or the Midtown International Theatre Festival, among others.

You never know what you’re going to get when you attend one of these shows, but occasionally a real gem will appear among the simulated jewels.      

One such gem is a work titled Death of the Persian Prince, a play of substance and heart that deserves recognition and the opportunity to be more widely seen. Written and directed by Dewey Moss, the play came and went in the blink of an eye as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, but, fortunately, it is about to reappear in the South Asian International Performing Arts Festival. (The dates are August 4 at 9 P. M. and August 8 at 4 P. M. at the Access Theater Black Box, 380 Broadway. Mark your calendar!)

Death of the Persian Prince sheds light on the heinous practice within the country of Iran of coercing homosexuals into undergoing sex reassignment surgery. In a country where homosexual behavior is prosecuted as a capital crime, the State has determined that the sex-change operation makes the problem disappear. You cannot be a homosexual if you are physically the opposite sex of your lover, or so goes the twisted and perverse logic that seems to satisfy both political and religious absolutists.

There is a tendency for plays with a strong social justice message to become pedantic and sanctimonious, but, truly, we do not come to the theater to be lectured to.  So double kudos to Mr. Moss for presenting this story through a naturalistic recounting of the story of Samantha (portrayed with great dignity and commitment by Iranian-American actress Pooya Mohseni), who is living and attending law school in New York.  Her life is complicated by her increasingly serious romantic relationship with James (George Faya), an ex-U. S. Marine who is talking marriage and children. 

In other hands, the “big reveal” (that Samantha was born male and had been in a gay relationship) would be the melodramatic climax of the play and would have come wrapped in a preachy plea for tolerance. But the program explicitly explains the background of the play so that we can focus our attention on observing the emotional toll on Samantha in her interactions with James. Thinking about the issue itself will come later; these are human beings we are dealing with, not talking PowerPoint slides.   

For his part, James, who served in Iraq, prides himself on being empathetic to the challenges to human rights  in Samantha’s part of the world. He understands why she drags him to forums on the treatment of women and other topics of injustice, and why their discussions about them often become heated. Her passion is one of the reasons he has fallen in love with her. 

But there is that secret Samantha has been keeping to herself, one that is forced into the open when her brother Cas (Gopal Divan) shows up at her apartment. Cas is intent on bringing her back to Iran where she had been under his thumb ever since he presumably saved his/her life by forcing him/her to have the surgery. Cas’s threatening demeanor makes it clear that freedom from prosecution does not translate into freedom from persecution. He considers Samantha to be nothing more than valuable commodity in the sex trade back home.

The playwright does not allow for a fanciful and romantic ending to break the honesty of this compelling story. Cas leaves, but we know he’ll be back, and Samantha’s future remains at great risk. When a badly shaken James asks why Samantha went through with the surgery, she replies:  “because it’s legal there, and we can’t question things…and live.”  What would you have done? 

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