|Bani: My late, distant uncle who influenced my brother and me in cinema|
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FESTIVAL '90 : The Truly Struggling Artist : Stage: Avant-garde playwright Assurbanipal Babilla lost fame and fortune when he fled Khomeini's Iran. Now he's a scrambling New York artist.
September 08, 1990|ROBERT KOEHLER
If "Three Angels Dancing on a Needle" sounds precarious, it's nothing compared to the life of the creator of this performance work (at the Tamarind Theatre, Sunday through Wednesday). As Assurbanipal Babilla said in a recent phone interview from New York, "I may be only 46, but I have a big past behind me."
Babilla describes "Three Angels" as "an exploration of where sex and religion meet, but more than anything, its central theme is love, and how three people have failed at it." That, the actor-director-playwright admitted, makes the show sound tame, especially as the Village Voice's Roderick Mason Faber described Babilla as "a master of evil glee" and how "each performer acts out a personalized phallocentric obsession."
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The obsessions, though, come from different sources. "Three Angels," being a collective production of Purgatorio Ink, the wryly named trio of Babilla, Donna Linderman and Leyla Ebtehadj, reflects a triple point of view. "Donna and Leyla inspired me to write these scenes for them. They're not about them, although both of them thought at times that they were."
The guiding obsession, however, is Babilla's. And its source is a story that this avant-gardist in both theater and painting has never before told publicly.
Like so many who explore the artistic margins, Babilla calls his current life "a struggle." But in Iran, until 1979, he had the best of all possible worlds.
"I led a group at one of Iran's leading theaters, the Drama Workshop in Tehran. We were free to experiment with an almost limitless budget. I could rehearse a play for eight months, and then decide not to do it if it wasn't working."
This marked, ironically, a fall into theater paradise. Babilla was once in line to assume the leadership of Iran's Christian Assyrian church, but became a o7 persona non grata f7 with its elders and was effectively booted out of the church.
"It was one of the biggest pieces of luck that ever came my way," said the avowedly spiritual artist, "since it led me into the theater, which became my new church."
Babilla's luck, though, began to run out in 1978. An exhibit of his paintings and photo collages, charged with homoerotic and other sexual imagery, was to open at a Tehran gallery. But with the increasingly violent street presence of Islamic fundamentalists, he had second thoughts about opening the show. The liberal-minded gallery owner insisted that it go on.
"For some reason, my work had always been associated with controversy, even when I didn't intend it. (His production of Jesus' life, presented in the ruins of Persepolis during the Shiraz Art Festival, set off a riot in the audience.) But it was quiet after the gallery opening. Then, without warning, a reporter and photographer stormed into the gallery one day and took unauthorized shots of my work. Photos of my naked body ran on the front page the next day."
So heated did the ensuing protest over Babilla's art become that it was debated in the Iranian parliament. "My work," said Babilla, "was linked with the corruption of the Shah's government." In an eerie precursor of the recent storm over Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photography, the Babilla images became a magnet for fundamentalist opponents and art lovers.
Eventually the exhibit closed; even so, government police attempted to arrest Babilla--then rehearsing his version of Eugene Ionesco's "o7 Jeux de Massacref7 "--on obscenity charges. ("They came to the theater, thinking I'd be there, but I was out doing my laundry!").
Ionesco's play depicts a monk who causes people to fall over dead if they look at him--a metaphoric warning for the bloody religious revolution to come. "None of us had any idea of what was to come," Babilla said. "All of a sudden, a whole nation caught a terrible disease of the soul.
"The government was trying to appease the fanatics," so Babilla was finally arrested--though, in absentia, while he was traveling abroad. The sentence was two months in prison and the burning of his paintings that the government had seized. Babilla's attorney managed to have all penalties dropped.
In the days before Ayatollah Khomeini's February, 1979, takeover, "Tehran was like a festival. But within a month, the executions began." Babilla fled Iran seven months later, arriving in the United States in November.
Thanks to the late Duncan Ross, the then-head of USC's drama department, Babilla was able secure a theater professorship. Ironically, his future partner, Donna Linderman, saw one of his productions, "The Gnashing of Teeth," while she was a USC student.
The two didn't meet, however, until the mid-'80s, when he was teaching at New York University. Out of that meeting, with the addition of Leyla Ebtehadj, came a production of Jean Genet's "The Maids" and the formation of Purgatorio Ink.
"Assyrians are Semitic, so I'm obsessed with the word," observed Babilla. "Most experimental theater has ignored language, which is why so much of it has been an interesting failure. My stage images are very imperfect, but I want the mind images created by the words to be as perfect as possible."
Looking back over the past, sometimes turbulent 12 years, Babilla noted how humbling it's been to go from being a leading cultural voice to a scrambling artist: "What I've lost in fame, I've gained in spirituality. I also have a less naive notion of what freedom really means."
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