The two admired and beloved theater companies come together for a world premiere play inspired by Duke Ellington’s 1963 tour of Iran. Isfahan Blues imagines the relationship between a famous American jazz musician and a beautiful and charismatic Iranian film star, if they disappeared on a road trip to the city of Isfahan.
Written as a memory play by Torange Yeghiazarian (the real-life daughter of famous actress Vida Ghahremani, who will star in the play alongside AASC artistic director L. Peter Callender), Isfahan Blues, directed by Laura Hope, features an original score from Bay Area jazz maestro Marcus Shelby, and dramaturgy by Nakissa Etemad.
San Francisco - Golden Thread Productions joins forces with the African-American Shakespeare Company to present the world premiere of Isfahan Blues, a new memory play from Torange Yeghiazarian inspired by Duke Ellington’s 1963 tour of Iran. This is the first time that the African-American Shakespeare Company is producing an original play that is not part of the classical canon/repertoire. With an original score from Marcus Shelby,Isfahan Blues is what might be called-to use a musical term often employed by Ellington himself-a “fantasia” on a situation that poses the question: what would’ve happened if the Duke’s right hand man, the composer and lyricist Billy Strayhorn made the decision to go off on a road trip with a charismatic, beautiful and popular Iranian actress of the time?
Actor and African-American Shakespeare Company Artistic Director L. Peter Callender will play the lead character, Ray Hamilton, while Bella, the actress and nightclub owner, will be played by beloved Iranian actress Vida Ghahremani, and as the young Bella, by Sofia Ahmad. Ghahremani is the real-life actress who owned a nightclub in 1963 Iran; playwright Torange Yeghiazarian is her daughter.
It is a rare occasion that AASC, a celebrated African-American arts organization in the Bay Area, is partnering with Golden Thread Productions, the first American theatre company focused on the Middle East. Through this unique partnership of two theaters of color, the play was created in a collaborative process between playwright Torange Yeghiazarian and the creative team consisting of actress Vida Ghahremani, actor L. Peter Callender, dramaturg Nakissa Etemad, director Laura Hope, and composer Marcus Shelby.
IsfahanBlues offers an alternative vision to today’s political stalemate between the US and Iran. This production aims to shed light on a little-known historical moment when a uniquely American art form inspired generations of young Iranian musicians. Among other things, the play poses what would it be like for Ray Hamilton-a black musician and lyricist inspired by the life and character of Billy Strayhorn-had he decided to leave the tour and strike out on a road trip to the legendary city of Isfahan with Bella? And what was it like for an Iranian woman in the early sixties to touch a third rail in her own culture, by insisting on her own independence?
As is well documented, Billy Strayhorn had an affinity for glamorous women, and glamorous women had an affinity for him; Ray shares this affinity, as does Bella who is drawn to him as well. According to the playwright this was inspired by Strayhorn’s relationship with the American actress, singer and nightclub performer, Lena Horne, who was candid in saying he was the love of her life, though he was openly gay at a time when that was not an easy thing to be.
“Bella and Ray are drawn to each other, partly because they are both protected and “masked” by the strong men in their lives,” says Yeghiazarian. “Ray by Duke Ellington who provided protection in virulently anti-gay times, and Bella, who has similar relationship with her husband, who though he is controlling, allows her the protection she needs-while often taking credit for her accomplishments, something it has been argued, Ellington did with Strayhorn as well.”
2015 is the centennial of Billy Strayhorn. In addition to such iconic titles such as Take the ‘A’Train, Lush Life and Satin Doll, he is responsible for the languid and beautiful composition, Isfahan, recorded by Ellington as part of The Far East Suite, which can be found here.
Original Score The original score for Isfahan Blues is from Marcus Shelby. Because of copyright issues, none of Ellington or Strayhorn's actual compositions can be employed, so Shelby faces the exciting challenge to write in their tone. Much like the writer of the movie Selma, who had to write original speeches for Martin Luther King, as copyright laws made using MLK’s own words impossible.
Playwright: Torange Yeghiazarian
Original Music: Marcus Shelby
Director: Laura Hope
Dramaturg: Nakissa Etemad
Featuring: Vida Ghahremani & L. Peter Callender
Note: Isfahan Blues was written in collaboration with the creative team; links to their bios can be found HERE
Presented By: The African-American Shakespeare Company and Golden Thread Productions
Where: Buriel Clay Theater When: May 2 - May 24, 2015;
Time: Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday Matinee at 3pm
Tickets: 15-$34.00 available through African-American Shakespeare Company or Golden Thread Productions
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