Reza Abdoh: AIDS, Rage, Theater
by Lester Strong
I recently traveled east from Manhattan on New York City’s No. 7 subway line to the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 in Long Island City to see the show Reza Abdoh. A gay Iranian-American auteur of some note in his day, Abdoh died of AIDS-related causes in 1995 at age 32 in New York and is little known today. But during the 1980s and 1990s he was one of the Wunderkind writers and directors of American avant-garde theater and videos, with titles to his credit like Father Was a Peculiar Man, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Euridice, The Law of Remains, Quotations from a Ruined City, Bogeyman, and The Blind Owl, among many others.
At his death, Abdoh insisted he didn’t want any of his plays staged again. So the exhibition is a remarkable feat of curating that brings to vivid life his work in all its glory—and, for that matter, all its infamy—by means of taped videos of his work, written scripts of his plays, newspaper reviews of his plays, photographs, and accounts of his life and background.
A jumble of adjectives comes to mind when describing the exhibition: raucous, loud, moving, overwhelming, thoughtful, startling, jarring. Several words do not come to mind: relaxed, calming, peaceful. No doubt this assessment reflects Abdoh’s own life experience and personality. Born in Tehran in 1963, he had two brothers and a sister (he was the oldest). His family had money, and when the Khomeini regime came to power in 1979 his father fled first to London, then eventually to Los Angeles, taking his three sons with him; his wife and daughter remained in Iran.
This was not a happy household in L.A. Reza’s father has been described as “a total man’s man,” a business man, big in build, at one time a boxer, very macho. Early on there was trouble between Reza and his father over Reza’s wish to study violin, and eventually over the young man’s homosexuality. Then, soon after moving to Los Angeles, the father died, leaving the three sons penniless.
It was a hardscrabble life for a while for all three children. According to his brother Salar, Reza found a place to live in West Hollywood, and was heavily into a gay lifestyle. To make ends meet, he worked as a night manager at a hotel for a while, as a manager in a restaurant, even as a hustler. He never did become a violinist, but he wrote poetry, tried writing novels, then drifted toward theater. And it’s there that his true talent lay, both as a playwright and director.
By 1983 he was directing plays in Los Angeles, doing his own take on classics like King Lear, King Oedipus, and Medea. He was also doing some videos and short works of his own. But by 1990 he was writing and directing the first pieces for which he became internationally famous: Father Was a Peculiar Man, The Hip-Hop Waltz of Euridice, and a workshop of Bogeyman. He became bicoastal, living in New York and directing his plays there, as well as in Los Angeles. In the 1990s he formed his own theater company, Dar A Luz, and went international with his work, with performances in Montreal, Barcelona, Granada, Vienna, Munich, Frankfort-am-Main, Hamburg, and Paris.
Reza Abdoh was becoming very famous indeed, at least within the avante-garde theater world. And while he wanted success, it’s clear his pieces, even toward the end of his life, were not cut from the cloth of happiness. His brother Salar said in one interview: “He worked like a madman.” The Los Angeles reviewer Charles Marowitz wrote of Bogeyman that it exhibited “the unmitigated quality of Abdoh’s inferno. It is unbelievably savage.”
And the sources of that inferno? Undoubtedly they had something to do with his encounters with a disapproving and on occasion brutal father, who found Reza unacceptable as a son in just about every way possible. Equally it had to do with the pathologies of a society he found mean-spirited and in denial of its own mendacity. But perhaps its most immediate spur was having to live so intimately with AIDS before the era of effective meds, when it was a sure death sentence. We’ve seen something along these lines elsewhere: the rage of David Feinberg in Eighty-Sixed, of Larry Kramer in The Normal Heart, of Paul Monette in Borrowed Time and Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, among other literary works. In Abdoh’s plays, however, it took on particularly brutal twists.
As Charles Marowitz wrote for TheaterWeek in his review of Bogeyman: “With AIDS as his subtext, and death as his pretext, Abdoh has looked hard and deep into his own terror and reproduced the lineaments of his own despair. He has found parallels between his own mortality . . . and the cruelty of a society that encourages a brutal psychopathology as a normal way of life.” By means of disorienting stage sets, multimedia visual and sound effects, and sensory overload, along with subject matter like BDSM, sexually and racially charged stage action, and provocative language and text elements, his productions were a form of assault on the audience intended to wake it up to the nightmarish quality common to so much of our daily life in the contemporary world that it’s mostly taken for granted.
Did he succeed in his aim? Well, people responded to his productions. Some audience members in Los Angeles, like Bette Midler, walked out of Bogeyman, while others demanded their money back. Still others threatened to call the police and/or the mayor to complain about the production. Whether they responded in the way Abdoh wanted is another question. Many times violence and assault can close us down rather than open us up.
I’m not the first to point out that Abdoh’s work is one-sided in its commitment to the horrors of modern life. In his review of Abdoh’s theater piece Tight Right White titled “Artaud You So” for the Village Voice, Michael Feingold described the play in terms of Antonin Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty,” writing: “Abdoh apparently believes that rubbing our faces in the hidden hatreds as vehemently as possible is a step toward curing them. He certainly knows how to carry out the procedure . . . [but we] are entitled to be skeptical about the possible results: it’s hard to imagine that unconstrained negative forces, once let loose, will provide any positive spiritual results. And if spiritual results are not the point, it’s hard to see what all the negativity is for.”
It’s too late to redress the wounds of an earlier generation enraged about and eventually decimated by AIDS. But the work of Reza Abdoh, fueled at least in part by the despair he felt over his own collision with the disease, suggests a way of dealing with rage-producing situations that doesn’t alienate others but contributes to finding solutions to the underlying conditions that cause the rage. Just think how rage fueled the AIDS protests in the 1980s and 1990s that led to the medical research required to achieve the medical breakthroughs which helped alleviate the ravages of HIV to everyone’s benefit. Rage is not something to be celebrated for its destructiveness alone. Its value lies in its ability to lay bare the reasons for its existence in order to eliminate the need for it. Abdoh in his rage produced very powerful theater. Is it just possible that it might have been even more powerful if it had woven into it a thread of hope?
Reza Abdoh is on view at MoMA’s PS1 through September 3. PS1 is located at 2525 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, NY 11101; for directions and hours, go online to moma.org or call 1-718-784-2084.
Also consulted for this blog entry: Reza Abdoh, 1999, Daniel Mufson (ed.), The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, and London, UK; and the Reza Abdoh section of Mufson’s personal website danielmufson.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.