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Reza Abdoh: From the Son of the Founder of Persepolis Club to the Recognized Playwright in the American Theater

March 22, 2019 by  

​by PanteA Bahrami – The Berlin Institute of Contemporary Art is holding an exhibition of photos, manuscripts, screenings and videos of the 32-year-old Iranian-American director, Reza Abdoh who died of aids in 1995.

The exhibition will be held from February 9th to May 5th in Berlin in collaboration with the New York Museum of Contemporary Art. At the end of his life, he insisted that he did not want any of his works to ever be shown on stage. This request has been chronicled in the archived video recordings.
The legacy of Abdoh as a theater director, although short lived, places emphasis not only on the unique forms he uses in various layers, including light, dance, video, speech, music, photos, and unexpected movements, but also the relationship of poetry and language. His works also refer to current issues such as environmental, Reaganism, gender orientation, racial inequality, class and finally violence. His works display a mirrored expression of how social inequality is significant in the social order which he refers to as society.

Abdoh’s Works
Reza was not only a theater playwright but also a film-maker. He in collaboration with a colleague filmmaker Adam Sachs, and Brandon Doyle, his partner in life made the long film “The Blind Owl.” But, Abdoh is best known for his theatrical works in Los Angeles and New York as part of the Darwin Alves Group. These works included “Father Was a Scarce Character”, “Hip Hop-Waltz”, “Lulu”, “The Act of Survival”, “Tang”, “Right”, “ White”, “Quotes From a Ruined City” and “Minamata.”
In 1996, one year after being silent, he won the Bessie Award for a lifetime of creative activity in theater and dance.

Who is Reza Abdoh?
Abdoh’s mother, Homa Migraine , is an Iranian born in Italy. Homa’s father was an Iranian diplomat assigned to Geneva. Homa was 16 when her first child, Reza, was born in Iran. Reza’s father, Ali Abdoh was a wealthy man who was a friend of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his sister, Princess Fatima, and her husband, Airforce Commander Mohammad Khatam. Ali Abdoh was a boxer and owner of the Abdoh Bowling Club and founder of the Persepolis Club. Homa and Ali met in Iran at the Club. Ali was 24 years older than Homa.
Ali Abdoh traveled to the United States in 1949 at the age of 16. He joined the the US Army and fought in the Korean War. He was a dual national. His first marriage was at age twenty. During this marriage he had a daughter, Regina. Ali, being a boxer himself, dreamt of his son Reza also joining in the ranks of a professional sport. According to Homa, Reza wanted to learn the violin, but his father was opposed to such activities.

One of the things that made the relationship between father and son very volatile was their position on different values. The family spent their summers in England. Reza was introduced to the works of Bergman and Kurosawa at the age of 9 and at 13 he left home for England. There he developed a love for theater and made it his life’s ambition.

According to Salar, Reza Abdoh’s brother, Reza published his first book of poetry at the age of 14. Copies of this book are not available. After the 1979 Revolution, all their property, including the books, were confiscated. Homa stated, “They took all of our belongings including all of our books that were stored in our library, they took all our family photos, I do not have any childhood photos of my children, I don’t even have a copy of Reza’s book of poetry, everything was taken from us.”

The First Theater Experience
When Reza was sent to England, he originally lived with his grandmother in London. He began exploring London and its attractions, to the extent that he started to neglect his school work. His father’s anger resulted in his being sent to the Wellington Boarding School. According to Salar Abdoh, the number of foreign students enrolled in British schools was very low at that time. This led to an atmosphere of racism and discrimination, especially against those who came from Middle Eastern countries.
Tony Charles, Reza’s teacher, discussed a black raincoat with long sleeves, Reza wore as a protest against the school uniform. At the same school, despite English not being his primary language, Reza won the school’s literary prize. During these years, Reza Abdoh’s book of poetry, “The Blindness of the Blind in the Closed Space,” was released. According to Tony Charles, Reza believed that the artist is doomed to live in isolation even as part of a member of humanity.
Charles worked on putting together several shows at the school and asked Reza to be his directorial collaborator. He described Reza as being extraordinarily talented and used great creativity in theater, this led to his work in experimental theater.

The Revolution and Abdoh Family
The 1997 revolution brought severe negative economic impact on Reza’s family. According to Homa, wife of Ali Abdoh, they separated before the revolution. Ali migrated to the United States with his children. Reza’s mother said in an interview, “Reza’s father was a good friend, but he was not the best husband or father to his children. Ali was a successful businessman but had no time for his family and was always away on business.” 
After the 1979 revolution, almost all of Ali Abdoh’s assets were confiscated by the government. Ali Abdoh resettled in Los Angeles. Reza along with his sister Regina also lived there. It was at that time his father discovered his son’s sexual preference of homosexuality.
According to Salar, Reza’s brother, who later collaborated in writing a few plays with him after his father’s death, Reza could not continue to study at the University of California because of financial and emotional burdens. In 1981 the university fee was only $ 5,310 for tuition and a dormitory room. This was still not affordable because his brothers were also his financial responsibility, including the youngest Sardar. According to Salar, at that time he did not have enough money for food and worked for a while in a hotel.

This was a difficult time for Reza. He told people, in the early 80’s, that his mother was half Italian and half Iranian (in fact, his mother was an Iranian but was only born in Italy.) Due to discrimination at the time and the hostage crisis he used this story in order to survive the hostile environment surrounding him. This took place in 1983 and played a significant role in Reza’s professional development.

Shakespearian Performances
In 1983 Reza met Alan Mandel, a famous actor and director at the Los Angeles Theater Center. He invited Reza to work with him. The following year, Reza directed Shakespeare’s King Lear’s Courtyard. There are no recordings of this 4-hour performance but his other works are kept as part of the archives.
The Los Angeles Times wrote a critique of the presence of a young director at the center. The performance took place at a basketball hall in the heart of Los Angeles. The article compared this young man of 22, so called half Italian and half Iranian, to re-known directors such as Robert Wilson and Richard Forman. This astonishing genius of a young artist was entering the highlight of his career.
In 1988, the Times nominated him as one of the leading directors of the year. With the release of his play Reza introduced a new physical performance to be implemented by his actors and expand on the art of the physical. This piece earned him the annual prize of the year. From that point on Reza was well recognized in the theater industry. 

Avant-garde Theater
Almost all Abdoh’s work takes on the essence of his everyday life. The “Survival Act” was created based on the character of Jeffrey Dahmer, as a symbol of violence (Dahmer mutilated dozens of his victims and stored them in his home refrigerator. His victims were mostly black and homosexuals. He was finally arrested in 1991.) There were fourteen actors in the cast who brought to the audiences a taste of the violence committed by a human being.
In an interview with Philip Well he stated, “I hate the word “avant-garde. I am a fan of common culture. I look at my work as entertaining, especially in a culture where progressive values are not appreciated, this is kind of paradox or dichotomy. I like the fact that my work is a combination of realistic images coming from the media with ideas that are specifically intellectual and progressive. But at the same time, I cannot tolerate pure intellectual works because it cannot arouse the creative and sensual side of you.

For example, in the show “The Survival Law, “ a work of folk and or populist, you are immersed in sound and music. In ancient cultures, they do not apply theory to dance, they want to get to a degree of immersion, and I think this is a good approach to art, creating a drowning effect.”
The show, “Father was a Scarce Character,” written and executed in the nineties, pointed to the narcissism of Donald Trump, at the time a well-known figure in the world of commerce and entertainment and very interested in the dialogue, this theme is heard: “Every man has a period of his life, such as Donald Trump, for some it takes longer than the rest.”
“The Minamata” is the most important works from both the artistic and his individualist approach. This was a turning point in his career. The New York Theater Center decided to give Abdoh the centerpiece of the center. Reza Abdoh was more capable and had a great opportunity at this time, more than any other time, to bring out the greatest performers in his career. The show lasted 2 hours and 20 minute and is the last extended work of his career. The rest of his work is about an hour and a half. This particular work is about an environmental disaster. It was at that time that Abdoh found out that he was carrying the HIV virus.

In “Minama,” Abdoh used prerecorded images for the first time. This piece later became an integral part of his art. After this show based on video recordings, photos became part of his work.
The show also featured a combination of modern dance and traditional music from Hollywood and featured many great performers. The show included a narrator who spoke the true story behind this environmental catastrophe.

First and Last Meeting with Mother
In 1992, while on an international tour, after fifteen years Reza was able to meet up with his mother in Paris. In the spring of 1995 Reza came to the show, to show the “Story of Disappointment” to the players. This was the beginning of the end. His health was deteriorating, and the disease was visible. Homa was trying hard to return to America before the death of her son Reza. She received eight rejection stamps from the consulate. Eventually she was successful and made it back New York. Homa stated, “During our separation all these years we spoke on the phone at least 3 to 4 times a week, he pushed back death until we met. He passed the day after I arrived in New York and forever closed his eyes.”

Reza Abdoh’s work has left an irrefutable impact on the American contemporary theater due to his unique features in form and technique. His critique of racial, gender and class inequalities has left a remarkable statement in the works of future artists.

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