If there is a play in Toronto that must be seen right now, I would say without any hesitation that it is Mahmoud. This one-hour, one-act solo performance starring Iranian-Canadian writer and actor Tara Grammy not only manages to make us laugh, it also invites us as spectators to become part of the performance itself.
Mahmoud tells the story of three characters who live in the city of Toronto, and whose lives become intertwined as the play unfolds. First, there is Mahmoud, an Iranian taxi driver who engages in nostalgic recollections of his past in Iran, and who tells us repeatedly about the richness of Iranian history and culture. At one point, Mahmoud pulls out a book of poems by the Persian poet Hafez and reads to us in Farsi. There is also the figure of Tara, an Iranian-Canadian teenager who fantasizes about being desirable in a society where whiteness and blond hair represent the beauty ideal. When Tara asks us if we can see her sideburns, and then shows us her box Nair hair-removal cream and Garnier blond hair dye, we are meant to laugh but also to recognize the very real sense of alienation experienced by second generation racialized Canadians. The third character is Emanuelos, a gay “Spanish” man who sells perfume at Holt Renfrew and longs for his boyfriend and soon-to-be husband to return from Iran, where he is visiting his family. Set against the background of the 2009 presidential election in Iran and the subsequent protests, the play presents us with three characters who negotiate between an Iran that is both real and imagined, and the realities of life in Toronto.
Mahmoud is mind-blowing as a solo performance piece. It is easily the best one I’ve seen to date! Grammy’s transition from one character to another is done with such skill and mastery that, after a while, we almost forget that she is the only actor on stage. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Grammy doesn’t rely on costumes or props to distinguish between the three characters. Instead, it is her body language, her accent, and her mannerisms, together with the passion she brings to each role, that serve not only to mark the shift between characters, but also to bring these characters to life. But if Grammy’s talent as an actor makes it possible to imagine various characters on stage at once and to follow their fast-paced back-and-forth exchanges without even a moment of confusion, the precise use of lighting and sound also works to set the stage. In one scene, for example, the entire theatre is transformed into a dance hall with the use of a strobe light; and in other scenes, the sounds of honking horns and moving cars remind us that Mahmoud is talking to us from his taxi.
Mahmoud draws on stereotypes; it parodies the lives of minorities – the taxi driver with a PhD from Iran; the second-generation teenager who listens to the Backstreet Boys and longs for acceptance; and the flamboyantly gay man who tells everyone about his exotic Persian lover. The play deals with stereotypes but also undermines them, and in the process, manages to touch on a number of very serious issues: racism, Islamophobia, the experience of immigrants in the West, the conflict between first and second-generation immigrants, and homophobia. What makes the play particularly powerful is that it critiques Canadian society and challenges the nation’s promises of multicultural inclusion, but does so without romanticizing the diasporic “homeland” or slipping into its own nostalgia.
The play draws our attention to the violence that unfolds in Iran in 2009 and makes a brief reference to the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a student who was killed during the protests. This political context promises to add another layer of complexity to the plot itself, but unfortunately the play never quite delivers on that promise, except to suggest that Iranians in Canada are worried about their loved ones back home. As a spectator, I found myself wanting to know more. Another place where the play is perhaps lacking is in its representation of Emanuelos who, unlike the other two characters, never seems to move beyond a stereotype. For one thing, he is simply described as “Spanish,” and we never know exactly where he is from. When Emanuelos discovers that his boyfriend has failed to come out to his family and instead agreed to marry an Iranian woman, he experiences complete and utter shock. The scene is moving but also a bit surprising, and we are left wondering: Is Emanuelos as oblivious to homophobia as the play seems to suggest?
All in all, Mahmoud is a play worth seeing. It is a play that skillfully combines aesthetics and politics; a play that captures the brilliant performance of a young Canadian artist; and perhaps most importantly, a play that attests to the changing landscape of multicultural theatre in Canada.