One truism about drag inherited from academia is that its emphasis on artifice and exaggeration -- the towering heels, the extreme make-up, the overdrawn mannerisms, all topped off by a fluttering pair of false lashes -- lays bare how gender identity, particularly femininity, is constructed.
One such pair of eyelashes were practically the only consistent feature of performance artist and drag queen Maryam Farnaz Rostami's appearance throughout Persepolis, Texas: FOBspring to Drag Queen in One Generation!, her rousing debut solo show that ran to sold out crowds this past weekend at CounterPULSE.
Switching personas as often as she changed clothing, Rostami employed all the tricks in her drag bag -- projected video, gesture-focused choreography, lip-synching -- to tackle the thornier question of what (and who) we bring along with us in the long, messy process of creating our own identities.
(Full disclosure: I consider Rostami a friend as well as a comrade in stilettos. An occasional drag queen myself, I've shared bills with her drag persona, Mona G. Hawd, and I've followed her non-club performance work as well).
Persepolis -- written and performed by Rostami in collaboration with director and dramaturg Sara Razavi -- traces Rostami's journey from model minority offspring of a first generation Iranian family in the Texas suburbs to habitué of the nightclub and experimental theater stages of San Francisco. Testimony is provided by a courtroom drama's worth of character witnesses: persons lifted directly from her life, stereotypes, archetypes, and the occasional pop cultural icon.
There's the young, female Persian acquaintance, complete with a Brazilian Blowout and still-healing nose job, who backhandedly compliments Rostami on her more "natural" appearance. There's the jingoistic white Texan man who refuses to believe that his friend is actually Muslim because, "he isn't a towel-head." There's the overbearing, middle-aged Auntie who recounts at a mile-a-minute her pre-Revolution years as a fashionable maven of Tehran's nightlife.
Though Rostami paints with broad strokes, she rarely loses sight of the characters inside these caricatures. The Texan bigot's un-ironic declaration of love of country is later echoed by a first-generation Persian-American Uncle whose materialist bragging covers a genuine pride in his self-made success. And even though, during Auntie's monologue, the laughs were audibly louder from the Farsi-speakers in the house, her grandstanding and nagging were immediately recognizable to anyone who has survived a meal with extended family.
The show's press notes point out that Rostami conceived of each of her characters as a "number" in the musical theater or drag sense. Perhaps this, then, accounts for why each segment felt semi-autonomous, making Persepolis, despite Rostami's technically smooth transitions, seem cumulatively longer than it's modest one hour running time.
But this could also be a strategic effect. One of Rostami's aims in Persepolis is not to present her life's narrative A-to-Z but to push herself to inhabit, and at times undo, the narratives which have shaped her life. In one of the show's strongest segments Rostami, dressed as a hejabi woman completely covered save for her face, performs a Chaplin-esque dance with just her eyes to an instrumental folk song. As the music fades and Rostami exits the stage, we see a video projection of the same covered woman's face, nervously assessing the surrounding blackness of her robes, which now fill the screen. It's as if she had been swallowed whole.
You could read this passage as re-presenting the oft-contested figure of the "veiled woman" as a sly agent of her own desire, while simultaneously underscoring the West's continued exoticization of Muslim women as both erotic object and liberal cause célèbre. But such an interpretation, while certainly valid, conveys nothing of the palpable, almost painful ambiguity Rostami telegraphs in the space of a few minutes as she goes from silent clowning to uncomfortable silence.
Who is this woman to Rostami? What does it mean to don her garments? And, more so, what does it feel like? Persepolis is most powerful when it underscores the difficulty in answering these questions; or rather, when it takes stock of the often unexpected emotional and cultural baggage that comes along with playing dress-up, whether on stage or off.
For the show's finale, Rostami-as-Mona emerges, a vision in gold and sky-high Lucite heels, lip-synching a brooding '70s ballad by famous Iranian pop chanteuse Googoosh. It is a moment of triumphant pathos, which also makes it Persepolis's one true bit of camp.
The song's speaker (translated lyrics had been projected beforehand as Rostami changed, silhouetted behind the video screen) recounts, almost mythically, of once hoping to return to the ocean from whence they came, but having become stuck in the desert, has transformed into neither sea nor sand but both: a swamp.
This closing image is a potent, if slightly melancholy, metaphor for conflicted love and cultural exile, both themes that surface time and again throughout Persepolis. It's also a fitting one for Rostami's current métier, drag, itself another form of hybridity.
Contrary to the breezy self-assurance of Lady Gaga's "Born This Way," Persepolis demonstrates, with both humor and grit, that it's impossible to traverse the distance between what we are born into and who we choose to become without plenty of blood, sweat and tears. A little glitter doesn't hurt, either.
Persepolis, Texas ran July 15-17, 2011 at CounterPULSE in San Francisco.