A Closer Look: Park-e Laleh
On Friday, November 6th, The Lark will hold a public reading of Shayan Lotfi's new play Park-e Laleh, as part of our Playwrights' Week 2019 festival! The story follows Amir – a gay Iranian asylum seeker – from his arrival in London in 2014 through subsequent years in his attempt to 'settle.' To give you a closer look at Shayan's process, fellow Playwrights' Week writer Ren Dara Santiago interviewed him about some of the themes in the play such as "otherness," intimacy, and erasure. Check out what they had to say below, then join us for the reading!
REN DARA SANTIAGO: I want to talk about setting! Its 2015! It’s Obama-era America, the media is on that Cheeto diet and the time of Brexit UK, where your play is set. Why did you set the play in London and was Brexit the impetus for the time of this play? Or what inspired this play? What was the first scene you wrote and the last scene you wrote?
SHAYAN LOTFI: The impetus of the play was a news article I read on the application process in the UK for LGBTQ asylum seekers. The article was written as a sort of exposé on the interview stage of the process that expected applicants to ‘prove’ their queer identity through often graphic and invasive questions regarding their sexuality and sexual experiences. While the article had a justifiably critical perspective on the process, I actually found myself thinking of this interview as a sort of apt metaphor for the performative aspects of being an ‘other’ in the West – queer, immigrant, person of color, a person with a disability, etc. How there is – either explicitly via an asylum interview or implicitly in how one navigates day-to-day life– an expectation to play their identity ‘correctly’, and a myriad of consequences should one get it wrong.
So at the most obvious level, Brexit itself was not the impetus of the play. But if you consider the subtext of that article – an anxiety around EU’s immigration policy and its potential abuses, which arguably was a key driver of the leave vote – then, yes, Brexit was an impetus for the play. And what interested me about Amir (whose story we follow) is the idea of a character who just by the nature of his existence – Middle Eastern, refugee, queer, a recent arrival, isolated – is a sort of single-person embodiment of what led to one of the most consequential decisions the UK made in its modern history. For this reason, he seemed to me the appropriate conduit in which to explore the pre-and post-Brexit climate in the UK, all while not having a single person around him ever actually utter the ‘B’ word.
Since the article was the catalyst for the piece, it’s probably unsurprising the first scene I wrote is the first scene of the play, which is the asylum interview. And the last scene I wrote was the last scene of the play, as it acts as a sort of narrative coda. But hopefully this doesn’t imply writing this play was some sort of orderly process, because everything between those two scenes was an out-of-order hot mess (as my fellow writers I workshopped this piece with can definitely attest to)!
RDS: I am very interested in your desire to double cast several roles that span ethnicities. It’s pretty uncommon and really exciting for theater, I think! In Park-e Laleh, it doesn’t draw attention to that choice, but the way the casting flips; in class/power, and in their (narrow or deep) perspectives, you can feel not only the intention behind the choices, but a question for us as the audience. I thought it was particularly clear in the church scene, how ethnicity is erased and swallowed by a person’s perceived racial identity. My question is: What do you hope your viewers will begin to understand/will get to identify in terms of ethnicity and/or erasure?
SL: I’m so relieved the intentionality came across to you. This is where the constraints of theater can sometimes lead to some breakthroughs. Beyond practicality, I thought dual casting could be an interesting tool with which to examine contemporary urban life through a kaleidoscope-like lens, with the same body inhabiting multiple ethnicities and classes and genders and sexualities and physical capabilities. If fluidity and/or a level of performance are inherent in all these roles, then having the same actor play multiple characters could be a way to reinforce that. And if we’re seeing this story through the eyes of Amir – who up until moving to London grew up in a comparatively homogenous environment – it also would make sense that his perspective would reflect this disorienting multiplicity as well.
But since you’re asking about race and ethnicity more specifically, I suppose in that regard, I’m interested in how ‘multiculturalism’ plays out in such drastic ways depending on context. Contemporary ‘multiculturalism’ is often framed on a binary spectrum – the diversity of ‘global cities’ vs. the homogeneity of ‘everywhere else’. But my experience has been that there’s a wide variation across those cities as well, clearly informed by a number of factors (history, social policy, urban design, etc.). So while London is ostensibly as ‘diverse’ as New York or Toronto or Sydney if you were simply to compare the proportion of the population that is a visible minority or foreign-born, the reality is – and as a native New Yorker I’m wondering if you agree with me here – that every city just feels different when it comes to that, and often in ways that (I personally find) are elusive and hard to articulate. And the fact that race is not a genetic reality, but rather a visual one, makes this dynamic all the more fascinating.
Just to use the characters of this play as an example: if instead of London, they decided to migrate elsewhere – say the Moroccan went to Paris, or the Pole to Berlin, or the Jamaican to Chicago – it’s very likely they would each lead markedly different lives, at least partially informed by their ‘race’ and how that specific environment chooses to (as you succinctly put it) distort their ethnicity based on that racial perception.
RDS: My favorite scene is in the bedroom with your lead character, Amir and the person he takes home! I love how detailed it is. I felt like I could picture their bodies because when they undressed, their vulnerability really spiked in your writing. I’ve never encountered a sex scene that felt so real and alive! Can you tell me what you think about the intimacy we see on stage, and what you like or hope to change or dismantle in sex scenes?
SL: Thank you for saying that! Especially since writing a scene like that is not always intuitive (and a bit awkward tbh). I think I wanted to link this scene to that of the asylum interview, and how that scene (and the play) starts with the phrase ‘penetration’. To me, what interested - and amused - me about the article I read was that there were bureaucrats at the Home Office who were making an almost-clinical determination that sex equals sexuality. And within that litmus test, there’s an interesting parallel between penetration as proof you belong to an identity group, and allowing a society to penetrate you as part of the assimilation process as proof you belong there.
And since in neither of those cases is the process easy or straightforward, it made sense to me that the scene with literal penetration would be vulnerable, tense, awkward, but also joyful and hopeful, all at the same time. Your suggestion that the scene might actually reflect that is a huge relief!
More broadly, when it comes to sex in dramatic narrative, it often serves a fairly utilitarian and blunt function. There’s tension up until consummation, consummation happens ‘successfully’ (which we’re often not privy to), and then there’s a new set of tensions post-consummation. While this arc serves a useful dramaturgical function, it never seemed honest to me, particularly when it comes to non-heterosexual sex.
RDS: The last scene is so beautiful. There’s something about mourning deep love that changes the make-up of a person. When my father lost the man who raised him, his Grandpa Fonso, he was never the same and for some reason that is unexpected in people- to change indefinitely. Who is Hussein for you? What is he telling the audience to consider?
SL: I love that the personal analogy you cite is the love between your father and his father figure. Going back to the asylum interview, that process not only equated sex with sexuality, but also implicitly between love and sex. During the first scene, Amir reveals that, for reasons beyond their control, him and Hussein were unable to consummate their relationship physically. Does that mean they actually weren’t in love? And Amir isn’t technically gay? Hussein references Rumi when he first meets Amir, and one of the tenets of Sufism is that divine love demands a physical transcendence. I find it interesting that a belief and practice emerging in the 12th century can define love in ways that are more evolved to what we often encounter today.
RDS: What is your favorite place to write and is it different every play?
SL: Ideally somewhere without WiFi and with some natural light. And with each play, I don’t necessarily seek out different places, but definitely different music playlists!