In 2018, Iranian-French performance artist Sorour Darabi came to SPRING and Frascati with Farci.e, an impressive, wordless solo about the impact of gendered language on our brain and outlook on the world from a trans point of view. Now, Darabi is back in the Netherlands with another solo, presenting Mowgli during Frascati International from 12 – 16 October. Words, voice and body are used to expose the binary wiring of the human thought cage. And challenge it.
The floor, covered in carpet, bends upward at the left and right edges of the stage. On the left slope, a figure is lying in the dark, the bare back turned towards the audience, an elegant long arm stretched out. A voice begins to speak in soft intonations. The experience it relates is of being called a dog. All the while, a hand with long, painted fingernails brushes the hair on a wig as if it were a beloved pet. When the wig is put on, it would seem we are looking at a female body. Or are we?
This initial scene contains all the elements that give the show its edge. The hairbrushing is a recurring feature. So are the soft intonations of the voice. And so is the talk of violent treatment, and the play with light and dark. Life, for many, is a negotiation between extremes. No wonder the body on stage speaks of deep depression, no wonder they defiantly look me in the eye, turn the tables on me and tell me how they see me as pretty, while making me feel preyed upon.
Watching Darabi is a constant involuntary tick-tocking between readings of gestures, intonations, expressions and movements my brain has been hardwired to class as ‘female’ or ‘male’. As much as I feel in my bones that gender is a sliding scale and not a clean, hard cut, these gendered readings seem part of the way I negotiate the world. This mental pigeon-holing is a structuring strategy. The structure builds towards a story that offers me within my cultural surroundings a sense of grip on the world. And the things that are hard to place within the structure have long been relegated to whatever is outside it: the wilderness. The jungle. Mowgli, the wild child who lends his name to this work, is anyone who is difficult to place.
Sorour Darabi knows the brain wants to perform its primitive act of structuring, has been on the receiving end of it in all forms, from being made invisible in their native Iran all the way to coming to Western Europe and battling prejudice against Islamic culture, and makes watching them a constant conscious exercise against the persistent dichotomies.
The performance could have benefited from a firmer dramaturgical hand – there are some extended movement scenes and speeches where voice and body are strained to drive home a point that has already been made. The tonal range is limited, which makes the show somewhat heavy-handed, where a little comic relief would have added impact. But I see Darabi’s work as a series of attempts to destabilize the ingrained structure and clear the way for a new one. Attempts like these will lead to new stories, much needed new ways of getting a grip on a world that is always in flux.