At a time when U.S.-Iran foreign relations are a hot-button topic in the news, two San Francisco theater companies have come together to tell a story of cross-cultural exchange between the two countries in a very different time.
A co-production of African-American Shakespeare Company and the Middle Eastern-focused Golden Thread Productions, Torange Yeghiazarian’s new play Isfahan Blues takes inspiration from the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s tour of Iran in 1963. At that time the US and Iran were much friendlier than they are today (which isn’t too surprising, considering a CIA-backed coup had put the Shah’s regime in power ten years earlier).
Yeghiazarian, Golden Thread’s founder and artistic director, says her curiosity was piqued by a jazz instrumental called “Isfahan” by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn on Ellington’s 1967 album The Far East Suite. The song is named after one of Iran’s largest and most majestic cities, its 17th-century capital.
“I was curious what might have happened on that trip that inspired them to name a song after that city in Iran,” she says. “It was sort of in the back of my mind, wanting to explore that story in the form of a play, and I knew I would want to do it as a collaboration with another theater company that would bring the African American perspective to the table. When Peter Callender took over the artistic leadership of African-American Shakespeare, I approached him. Initially we thought the play might be based on Billy Strayhorn’s life. Peter looks curiously like Billy Strayhorn, so we thought he’d be perfect for that part. But we didn’t get the rights from the Strayhorn estate to use his character or his music, so we decided that it would be inspired by him as well as a number of other musicians.” Bay Area jazz bandleader Marcus Shelby composed original music reminiscent of Strayhorn and Ellington’s style for the production.
AASC artistic director L. Peter Callender plays Ray Hamilton, a character loosely based on Strayhorn, the jazz pianist and composer who collaborated closely with Ellington for decades. Strayhorn was both black and openly gay in segregated America, as well as an active participant in the civil rights movement. In the play, Hamilton meets a character based on Yeghiazarian’s mother, Vida Ghahremani, who was a famous movie star in Iran in the 1950s and ’60s (and featured prominently in the 2008 film The Stoning of Soraya M.). Ghahremani plays the role of Bella, the character based on herself, and Sofia Ahmad plays Bella’s younger self.