‘Avaaz’ at Olney Theatre Center

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“Avaaz” at Olney Theatre Center. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

On entering Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater Lab now through April 7, the intimate performing space is awash in crystalline light from hanging cut-glass chandeliers, which illuminate a table overflowing with luscious symbolic foods, plants and objects arranged just so to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian new year. The stage floor, carpeted in bright green shag, suggests spring’s return, just as the Persian new year celebrates re-birth and re-generation. Dressed for a party, actor-writer Michael Shayan swans out in a magnificent gold brocade kaftan, cinched with a Gucci belt. He – with his unapologetic trim black beard – channels Roya, his Persian-Jewish mother in all her elegant, talkative and diva-licious glory.

As Roya, the actor meanders through the audience, greeting patrons, chatting about her wayward son – “He never answers my calls” – while intoxicating Persian dance music – a cross between EDM and Israeli disco – plays. When I offer up that I had an Iranian boyfriend in college, Roya winks knowingly at me, and shares a shoulder shimmy while stretching out her arm to display a perfect manicure on slim be-ringed fingers.

“Avaaz” at Olney Theatre Center. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

Welcome to “Avaaz,” which can be translated into song, music or its root word, voice in Farsi. This 90-minute play recounts Roya’s long withheld story of her girlhood in Tehran, as the daughter of a freedom fighter who spent more time at protests and in jail than with his family. And it follows her journey to the United States amid the growing Islamic fundamentalist takeover as the Shah of Iran was toppled, to her struggles to re-build and re-invent her life in “Tehran-geles” – the unofficial Persian-Jewish capital of the U.S.

Along the way, we learn about the Nowruz custom of haft-sin – each Persian home decorates a table filled with symbolic foods, flora and objects that begin with the Farsi letter sin, which makes the S-sound. Thus, set designer Beowulf Borrit’s elaborate, stylized haft-sin with abundant symbols including apples, sprouting wheat grass in a shallow plate, sumac, garlic and vinegar – each item representing a characteristic like beauty, rebirth, medicine and health, and patience. As Roya explains, she awaits her son’s arrival and, in the meantime, shares her story. Shayan is glorious embodying his mother’s joy, her still heavy accent and her sharp quips – especially about her son’s extra pounds, his Queer identity and his work as a writer – with impeccable comic timing.

“Avaaz” at Olney Theatre Center. Photo credit: Teresa Castracane Photography

But “Avaaz” isn’t all glitz and quips. Shayan, with the guidance of director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, pulls back the sequined curtains on his mother’s life, revealing hardship, loss, displacement and struggle. Along the way, the mother-son tension builds. We soon understand why those piquant barbs aimed at her son sting – and reveal as much about this single working mother, who knew not a word of English when she landed in Los Angeles, and built a life for herself, but, more importantly, for her son.

“Avaaz” feels like an Ur-Jewish story of exile, displacement and reinvention in a new and strange land. It, too, tracks an American tale of the immigration to build a better life, if not for their generation, then for their children’s. Braided together this hard-fought Persian-Jewish success story feels both familiar and fresh.

For more than a century American Jews heard stories of how their ancestors fled Europe and Russia for America’s “goldene medina” while retaining their Ashkenazi practices and roots within the Jewish value system. But the Ashkenazi-centric history of Jewish wandering and resettlement is only one part of Jewish peoplehood, of our larger Jewish story. Only in recent decades have other less-Eurocentric Jewish histories, from Arab lands, North Africa, Iran – or Persia – and beyond, come to be told more broadly.

In Shayan’s gracefully woven tale, his mother’s fraught childhood demonstrates that these perhaps less recognized family histories are as integral to our Jewish story as those of so many American Jews’ Polish, German or Russian immigrant grandparents. In addition, the Jewish love-hate relationship many children have with their Jewish mothers, Shayan suggests, is not limited to the Goldas, Yentas, and Mrs. Goldbergs that have become a too easy comic stereotype in American culture. But the Jewish mother knows no borders in the deep love and deeper sacrifices she’ll make for the sake of her children. “Avaaz” will have you laughing, shoulder shimmying, and reflecting on the diversity and beauty of Jewish – and American – stories and the voices that share them.

“Avaaz” written and performed by Michael Shayan, through April 7, 2024; Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD, Tickets: $55-$90. Visit olneytheatre.org or call 301-924-3400.

Lisa Traiger is Washington Jewish Week’s arts correspondent.

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