'Isfahan Blues': A Cross-Cultural Jazz Journey in 1960s Iran

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Vida Ghahremani, L. Peter Callender and Sofia Ahmad star in Isfahan Blues. (Photo: Alessandra Mello)

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.

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“I realized that at the time that the Duke Ellington Orchestra was in Iran, just a few weeks later my parents opened their nightclub in Tehran,” Yeghiazarian says. “So I started asking my mom about if she knew about the Ellington tour, because in their club they played a lot of R&B and some jazz. She didn’t know, but growing up in that nightclub I knew a lot of foreign musicians, European and African American, would come and play live music at the club. So I imagined this story where a character inspired by Billy Strayhorn meets a character inspired by my mom at the club, and they go on a journey together to Isfahan.”

Vida Ghahremani, former Iranian movie star and mother of playwright Torange Yeghiazarian, plays a character based on herself in Isfahan Blues. (Photo: Alessandra Mello)
Vida Ghahremani, former Iranian movie star and mother of playwright Torange Yeghiazarian, plays a character based on herself in Isfahan Blues. (Photo: Alessandra Mello)

Yeghiazarian used many of her mother’s own stories to create the character of Bella, particularly those about her parents’ tumultuous marriage. That can be delicate territory when you’re asking your mother to play a fictionalized version of herself, and Yeghiazarian had some concerns while writing the play.

“One was, would she like it?” she says. “And the second thing was, would she be able to play it? She’s in her late 70s, my mother, so in terms of her energy and her language ability and stamina and all of that, from the beginning I was trying to maximize her part but minimize her lines. But over the course of the development of the play, for better or worse, now she has a lot of lines that she has to memorize. Especially when she talks about her relationship with my dad, I asked her how much is she comfortable with me poking into that and washing the family laundry in public. With most of it she was, and she would just provide more details.”

Ghahremani says she couldn’t be more delighted with the result. “For me, it’s very exciting to see my younger self, 40 years ago, and what was going on in my life at that time,” she says. “It’s a beautiful story that my daughter wrote.”

The world premiere has been in the works for three years, and Yeghiazarian says it’s been a group effort from the beginning. “We have a collaborative team of five people: Vida; Peter Callender; myself; Nakissa Etemad, our dramaturg; and Marcus Shelby, our composer and music director,” she says. “Marcus, for example, his contribution is music, but there’s a sentence that he said in one of our conversations that I use verbatim in the play. In the same way that everybody in the team I hope sees themselves and their contribution in the play, I think the audience will also see themselves in the play, whether they’re Iranian or non-Iranian, African American or not. There’s an entry point for different people, and from there hopefully the audience will go on the same journey with us and ask some of the same questions that we ask.”

Isfahan Blues runs May 1-24, 2015 at the Buriel Clay Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit goldenthread.org or african-americanshakes.org.