"Isfahan Blues": For the Love of Jazz

by Jean Schiffman

Golden Thread Productions collaborates with the African-American Shakespeare Company in a production that infuses jazz with a story of Iran.

In November 1963 the legendary Duke Ellington and his band, which included the singular musician Billy Strayhorn, toured to Iran. One month later, Torange Yeghiazarian’s parents opened a nightclub in Tehran.

Yeghiazarian, the founding artistic director of San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions, had for many years wanted to write a play exploring that precise confluence of events; her company’s mission, to “bring the Middle East to the American stage,” makes for a perfect fit.

When she first approached L. Peter Callender—in 2010, shortly after he’d been hired as artistic director of African-American Shakespeare Company—with the idea of the two organizations collaborating on the project, he said yes. Although his company normally stages the classics, he was eager to try something new.

Now, in the year of the Billy Strayhorn centennial, “Isfahan Blues” is having its world premiere in a first-time coproduction between the two theaters. A memory play, it is infused with an original score by local jazz musician Marcus Shelby, and it centers on two artists: Ray, a gay African-American musician and Ellington’s right-hand man, who is deeply dispirited, unable to compose, and Bella, an Iranian actress and nightclub owner.

Yeghiazarian based Ray (played by Callender) on Strayhorn, 48 at the time of the Ellington tour to Iran. She’d originally wanted to depict Strayhorn per se, and use his music, but his estate denied the rights. The fictional Ray has a lot to say about racism at home, his language inspired by the writings of James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, with a little bit of Langston Hughes’ as well. Bella is not only based on Yeghiazarian’s mother, Vida Ghahremani, a former Iranian film star, but is also played by her in the present-day scenes.

During the course of the play, which weaves in and out of time and includes newsreel-type voiceovers, screen projections and some narration, Bella and Ray meet for the first time
at Bella’s club during that famous tour.

The two form a kind of “friendship-slash-love,” explains Yeghiazarian, as she and her mother discuss the play after a recent rehearsal. Inspired by the devoted friendship between Lena Horne and Strayhorn, Yeghiazarian aimed for that kind of intimacy between Ray and Bella. In “Isfahan Blues” Bella, escaping a controlling husband, runs off with the Ellington band as they head for fabled Isfahan, their next stop on the itinerary. Decades later, after Bella has immigrated to Los Angeles, the two reconnect, but this time Ray appears as a ghost.

“I wanted to write about jazz, and about the love of jazz in Iran that was sort of initiated by the Duke Ellington band, and I wanted to write about [Strayhorn’s] song inspired by the city, which is so beautiful,” says Yeghiazarian. “And then I thought about putting
it together with my parents opening the club.” The setting, the characters and some of the scenes grew out of stories Ghahremani told Yeghiazarian about the club and various real-life events, including a frightening encounter with brutal officials in a remote area.

Ghahremani, like the character she portrays, was forced by a jealous and suspicious husband to give up the acting career she’d begun as a teenager. Separating from him, she emigrated to America in 1979 on a student visa. Her daughter had emigrated a year earlier, at age 14, with her father’s family. Ghahremani eventually resumed her career, performing onstage, for the first time, in L.A., where she still lives. When Yeghiazarian established Golden Thread in 1996, Ghahremani joined in as artistic associate and appeared in plays, sometimes directed by her daughter. “It’s been great,” says Yeghiazarian. “She’s a great listener, she takes direction really well, she’s emotionally agile, and to see her onstage, she’s so captivating, she influences the whole scene just by entering. She’s done so much film, she’s very subtle, so one look or turn of the head speaks volumes.

“The challenge with this play,” she goes on, “is it’s so much about her personally. Are there memories that are difficult or problematic? I’m always listening: Is this working for you or not working?”

Ghahremani, a delicate, silver-haired woman in her late 70s, soft-spoken with a strong Persian accent, admits to being sensitive about only a few things. “Acting is my life,” she confides.

A creative team—Callender, Ghahremani, Shelby, dramaturg/casting director Nakissa Etemad and director Laura Hope—has been working with Yeghiazarian, who has written seven previous plays, to help develop “Isfahan Blues” over the course of several years. At today’s rehearsal, most of the team, plus others, gathers around a table at the African-American Art and Cultural Center, where African-American Shakes resides. Casting, says Yeghiazarian, was difficult, in that she and Etemad agreed to cast Iranians, which they accomplished (although Sofia Ahmad, who plays the young Vida, is half Pakistani and non-Iranian). Mohammad Talani, who plays the nightclub’s dashing headliner, Farid, is not only an actor and Iranian but also a musician.

As the actors read through sections of scenes, Callender occasionally stops to ask the playwright questions about his character. He wonders whether Ray truly loves America (“Very much,” says Yeghiazarian) and could some text be added to make that
clear. He worries about a particular line that he feels is a non-sequitur and is concerned because Ray tells Bella he loves her but gets no direct response. Yeghiazarian promises to examine those passages carefully.

“I have to ask these questions,” Callender explains later in a phone call. “I’ve got to follow my instinct. What does my character want?… Even if the answer had been ‘No, your character doesn’t love America,’ I wanted to know where the playwright is coming from.” A naturalized citizen, the Juilliard-trained Callender emigrated from Trinidad and therefore missed some of the events that Ray describes in the play, such as the March on Washington. Since taking on the role, he has been listening to a lot of jazz recordings, reading up on Strayhorn, listening to recorded conversations with Ellington.

“I feel like I’m representing both companies [Golden Thread and African-American Shakes],” comments Yeghiazarian. “I want to respond to Peter’s perspectives and needs.” She’s aware her script surrounds one American with several Iranians and suspects Callender feels a little bit outnumbered.

“I’m absolutely embracing that,” reports Callender. “It’s what the character is feeling as well.” “I think the play is about celebrating artistry,” concludes Yeghiazarian. “Both Ray and Bella agree that art is what we leave behind, and that’s worth more than anything else.”

Ghahremani and her husband eventually sold their nightclub, and it was finally closed down after the revolution, as were all nightclubs in Iran.

May 2 → 24

Buriel Clay Theatre

762 Fulton St., 415/762-2071 Ext.6