URBANA — After seeing Heather Raffo's play "9 Parts of Desire," a 6-foot-tall man who worked at the Pentagon sobbed on her shoulder, the playwright-actress said.
An Iraqi ambassador who saw the play later told Raffo she did in an hour what he has been trying to do over a lifetime.
And students at a North Carolina university told Raffo they had never thought about Iraqis as people until they saw "9 Parts of Desire."
Those kinds of reactions are examples of what New Yorker theater critic John Lahr meant when he wrote that "9 Parts of Desire" is "an example of how art can remake the world," Raffo said Wednesday in Urbana.
"9 Parts of Desire" tells in detail of the lives of eight Iraqi women and one Iraqi-American woman between the first and second Gulf Wars and during the occupation of Iraq.
Raffo, whose Iraqi-American father was born in Iraq and whose mother is American, usually acts solo in the play, taking on all nine characters.
For the past month or so, she has been on the University of Illinois campus, directing six theater students in her acclaimed piece. Two of the students each portray two characters.
The production opens Thursday evening and runs through Oct. 13 in the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. It will be presented in the round on a set created by Yeaji Kim that evokes both home — and the ravages of war.
Raffo said "9 Parts of Desire" is fiction based on the truth, gleaned from conversations she had while living and eating with a cross-section of Iraqi women.
Because Raffo is half Iraqi, the women opened up to her. And because she's Western, she believes they felt "they could express fears or secrets that might otherwise be judged more harshly by someone from their culture."
The nine characters in "9 Parts" are composites, the text is not verbatim and the play is not docudrama, Raffo said.
The actresses speak in English, directly to the audience.
"I wanted the audience to see these women not as the 'other,' but much more like themselves than they would have initially thought," Raffo wrote at her website.
While reviews have been positive, a few theater-goers walk out toward the end, when the character Huda, a "fiercely political" Iraqi ex-patriate who lives in London, tells of the torture she suffered in her homeland, under the Ba'athist regime.
"Every night there would be a few people who didn't or couldn't hear that," Raffo said. "It is an intense night."
Still, Raffo said "9 Parts" is not a 90-minute sob story but rather a celebration and affirmation — "It's 90 minutes of people in hot pursuit of life," she said.
Raffo has performed "9 Parts" solo hundreds of times, off and on over a decade. What was fun for her, she said, is that even critics from right-wing papers have appreciated the play — because it's not a piece of agitprop theater.
Rather than seeing it through a political lens or personal bias, audience members have appreciated the conversation the play creates, she said.
Raffo premiered "9 Parts of Desire" in 2003 in Edinburgh; from there it went to the Bush Theater in London's Off-West End. The Times of London selected it as among the "first choice" and "best shows" in the city, and The Independent called it one of the five best plays in London at the time.
Later, in New York, "9 Parts of Desire" garnered similar acclaim. It was first performed there in 2004 as a reading at the Public Theatre as part of its New Work Now festival.
After premiering off-Broadway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, the show ran for nine months; for more than 20 consecutive weeks it was a critics' pick of The New York Times, Time Out and The Village Voice.
Raffo also received for "9 Parts" a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize Special, a Marian Seldes-Garson Kanin Fellowship and the 2005 Lucille Lortel award for best solo show.
Raffo began touring the show in 2005 in the United States and in other countries, among them Iraq, Egypt and Israel.
In 2005, Lincoln Center recorded "9 Parts" for its Performing Arts Library, and four years later Raffo created for The Kennedy Center a concert version, collaborating with renowned Iraqi maqam musician Amir ElSaffar. The concert version has been presented at universities and art institutions in the U.S. and overseas.
The playwright-actress was inspired to create "9 Parts of Desire" after she visited the Saddam Art Center in 1993 in Baghdad. There she saw room after room of portraits of Saddam Hussein. (She still has relatives in Iraq.)
"I then wandered up some stairs into a back room and saw a haunting painting of a nude woman clinging to a barren tree," she wrote. "Her head was hanging, bowed, and there was a golden light behind her like a sun.
"I stood motionless in front of the painting. I felt she had captured something within me. I took a photo of the painting, came back to America and over the last 10 years have been digesting this painting and what it must mean to be an Iraqi woman now."
Raffo, a native of Michigan and alumna of the University of Michigan, believes Americans remain curious about Iraqis and continue to question the place of Americans in Iraq.
And even now, in 2013, Raffo believes Iraqi women have the same concerns she raises in "9 Parts of Desire." They as well as other Middle Easterners continue to experience sectarian strife.
"It not only speaks to what's happened in Iraq but also what's happening in Syria and Egypt," Raffo said. "What they're going through is current, a war of identity.
"What is their place in this world? How can they carry this much history and survive the present day? It also is, above all, about their love and their reasons for wanting to have a celebratory and a good life."
For more on Raffo, go to http://heatherraffo.com/.
If you go
What: The University of Illinois Department of Theatre presents "9 Parts of Desire," written and directed by playwright-actress Heather Raffo, starring six UI students
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Oct. 9-12; 3 p.m. Oct. 13
Where: Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $18 for adults; $17 for senior citizens; $15 for students; $10 for UI students and youths
Information: 333-6280; http://www.krannertcenter.com
Note: The play has strong adult content and is recommended for mature audiences only