By REBECCA JONES
For Montclair Local
As political tensions rise between Iran and the U.S., art that can dismantle the Western stereotypes that cast Persians as the “terrorist other” is needed more than ever. “The Haji Show,” a new Iranian-American comedy “made for America,” presented by two Montclair residents, aims to do just that.
The show had a short premier run at Brooklyn Music School Playhouse Theatre on Nov. 9 and 10. The play’s website describes it as a “shock-and-awe theatrical production.” While this production has finished, the creators hope to turn it into an actual TV show, or maybe something online.
Roger Sedarat, an Iranian-American poet, translator and scholar, and director Kevin Delaney (“Pee-Wee’s Playhouse”) created the show. Sedarat’s 2017 volume of poetry “Haji as Puppet: an Orientalist Burlesque” won the Word Works’ 2017 Tenth Gate Prize for a Mid-Career Poet. He is a professor at Queens College, CUNY, and teaches literary translation, poetry, and Middle Eastern-American literature.
“The Haji Show” was designed to be a satirical take on the character Hajii Baba from the 1954 American movie “The Adventures of Haji Baba,” starring John Derek and Elaine Stewart. The film in turn was based on a 19th-century novel titled “The Adventures of Hajii Baba of Ispahan,” by James Justinian Morier.
It was conceived as a “live television show,” featuring a musical performance by the lead vocalist of Mitra Sumara, a Persian psychedelic funk band, an interview with visual artist Nicky Nodjoumi and game shows with the audience.
The theater audience gets to be the “live studio audience” to the fake talk show’s rocky taping and the apparent breakdown of the show’s host.
While Haji argues with his producer over what’s appropriate for American television audiences during commercial breaks, the audience watches those commercials projected on a giant screen. After a trailer for the film “Argo,” and ads for “The Shahs of Sunset” and “Homeland,” the pattern of negative stereotypes of the Middle East becomes clear.
The crowd of about 250 responded strongly to the interview with Nodjoumi, whose paintings interrogate Iranian stereotypes, and to Sedarat’s rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil,” dressed as a Persian Mick Jagger, with lyrics changed to tell the story of the U.S.’s involvement in Iranian politics.
Amir Emdad, a Montclair resident who was born in Shiraz, said he “liked that the show was introducing audiences to Iranian artists and musicians, and the Iran situation. It’s something I’ve never seen here before.”
Jane Murphy, a woman who traveled to Iran in 1964 as a student, said, “it inspired me to want to learn more about the pro-western Shah overthrown in the 1979 revolution, because I didn’t realize how corrupt he really was.”
Overall, Sedarat said, “the audiences, made up of Americans as well as Iranians, have been really responsive. One couple wrote that they stayed up all night processing the many layers of politics, race, and representation. That was a real honor to hear.”