Novid Parsi identifies with Blanche DuBois.
He's a gay Iranian-American playwright, living in Chicago with his husband. She's a straight Southern belle, lost and tortured, living in New Orleans with her sister. But in Parsi's new play, Through the Elevated Line, Blanche's story in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire plays a pivotal role.
"Very early on while writing this play, I realized I was conjuring up the classic triangle of A Streetcar Named Desire: an outsider disrupting the home of a sibling and her husband," Parsi told Windy City Times via email. "[My main character] Razi Gol, like Blanche DuBois, is an unwanted traveler: caught between two worlds, accepted by neither. I decided to embrace that influence by reimagining Williams' powerful play and making it my own. Through its echoes of Streetcar, Through the Elevated Line shows how attitudes to our own Blanches … have progressed, and how they have remained the same."
Through the Elevated Line ( which begins previews March 7 with Silk Road Rising ) tells the story of Razi, an Iranian man who's recently immigrated to Chicago and is staying with his sister, Soraya, and her white husband, Chuck, who's from the United States. In the 11 years the siblings have been apart, Soraya has become a physician and adapted well to her surroundings, while back in Iran, Razi was imprisoned for being gay. As tensions rise among the three new roommates, Razi tries to make his way in a brand-new city, country and culture.
Born and raised in the U.S. and the son of Iranian immigrants, Parsi was inspired to write Through the Elevated Line in early 2016, amid America's never-ending immigration debate. "I was thinking about how we group immigrants into one of two categories: the good or bad immigrant, the hard worker or freeloader," he said. "I wanted to complicate that easy distinction by imagining two siblings who seem, at first, to exist on either side of it. By coming to know them as individuals, we come to see how…they have made difficult decisions within difficult and constrained circumstances." With all this in mind, "Through the Elevated Line is not a play about immigration per se," Parsi added. "I'm not interested in depicting the world as I'd like it to be. I'm interested in depicting the world as I see it."
This is Parsi's second play produced by Silk Road Rising, an Equity theater company founded in 2002 by Jamil Khoury, a Syrian Orthodox Christian, and Malik Gillani, a Pakistani Muslim. According to the company's website, Silk Road Rising "creates live theater in Chicago and online videos that tell stories through primarily Asian American and Middle Eastern American lenses."
Representation is crucial to Parsi, who co-authored the 2006 TimeOut Chicago article "Why is Theater in Chicago So White?" Parsi said, "[Christopher Piatt and I] noticed that the city's stages … did not reflect the city's diversity. We found that much of that had to do with the fact that young artists tended to start up theater companies with the people they already knewtheir friendsand so the racial homogeneity of their social circles played out in their artistic work." Did the article make a difference? Parsi, a former theater critic, can't say for sure. However, he observed, "larger companies like Court, Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens produce more diverse writers and hire more diverse actors today than they did over a decade ago, and I see that that's true of smaller companies as well."
Many playwrights aren't very involved in their premieres, but for Parsi, it's just the opposite. He personally chose director Carin Silkaitis, whom he called "a force of the theater…she has the passion and skill to bring the vision of my page to the stage." He also assisted in casting, and attended every rehearsal and production meeting. "I've been so grateful and humbled to see these amazing actors treat this play with such care, respect and risk-taking playfulness," Parsi said.
Khoury is equally grateful and humbled, if his program note is any indication. "In the next few years …[ Parsi will] be championed as an exciting new voice in the American theatre, and his plays will be produced nationally," Khoury wrote. "On American stages, the complicated, the questioning, and the curious, are enjoying newfound currency. Novid Parsi, with his impressive capacity to create characters that are charming, prickly, compromised and resilient, understands that one can be challenged by adversity without being defined by [it]."
When asked what he hopes audiences take away, Parsi replied, "I hope they get … what I think live theater can deliver unlike any other art form: the experience of being more connected to other people. And I hope they see in the play a mirror of this moment and of our nation, and they hear a question that the play poses: Who do we want to be?"
Silk Road Rising's Through the Elevated Line runs March 7-April 15 on the lower level at 77 W. Washington St. For tickets and more information, visit SilkRoadRising.org .