Wednesday, April 2, 2008

‘Dirt’ delves deep into illegal immigrant’s mindset

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Fataneh Dadkhah
A simple onion sandwich represents ‘‘people’s prejudgments about what others eat and wear,” says Shahin Shakibi.
‘‘My name is Sad,” bellows actor Shahin Shakibi, then quickly proclaims it’s not his real name. Only a couple of things are certain: he is an Iraqi illegally living in Germany and selling individual roses on the street. As they witness the painful journey of the sole character in the play ‘‘Dirt,” at BlackRock Center for the Arts stage on Saturday, the audience will realize this man may be losing his sanity.

Austrian playwright Robert Schneider’s ‘‘Dirt” made its debut in Vienna in 1992. It depicts the poorest of the poor as embodied by one individual, who puts a face on the millions of illegal workers discussed and debated on the nightly news.

After reading the play five years ago, the Iranian-born Shakibi knew that the role would be his eventually. He waited, believing ‘‘It really must be right or we don’t do it.”

Sponsored by the Washington Theatre Group, ‘‘Dirt” has been presented during the past two months at colleges throughout the region, and will go on to California universities in the next few months.

It took Shakibi about five months from his initial reading to memorizing the 85-minute play. Since English is not the Potomac resident’s first language, learning his lines and then creating this character was complicated.

The actor takes the character introduced as Sad personally.

‘‘I really connect with the piece,” the actor says. ‘‘Like every legal and illegal person, Sad came with hope and left his family, son and parents. He came to study, not to rape.”

Shakibi doesn’t offer a pretty picture of the life of a disillusioned illegal nor does he want to explain away the problem. He believes it is ‘‘important to admit that we all have prejudice and it is important to react differently.”

Sad shouts, cries and occasionally makes a slight joke, offering glimpses into the life and individuals he left behind, including his young son. But regardless of his homesickness, it is the people he encounters daily that are causing his anguish.

As the character sits in his room eating an onion sandwich, he wonders if people think he doesn’t brush his teeth after such a meal.

‘‘The onion represented a small thing,” Shakibi explains, ‘‘and people’s prejudgments about what others eat and wear.”

Shakibi also notes the importance of selling roses, which, he says ‘‘symbolize love and peace throughout the world.” While Sad offers up these beautiful flowers, he is pained by watching the buyers count their change. He may seem overly sensitive to every slight, but it is clear that loneliness and loss of identity are driving his insanity. Although it is time for him to go work, his despondency and the opportunity to articulate his feelings keep him yelling, crying and sometimes withering in pain.

The actor knows the battle zone and the suffering of immigrants. Shakibi left his native Iran in the 1980s with all the proper papers, first moving to Austria and then the U.S., he contends that at times, he felt many of Sad’s emotions. In Austria, he recalls believing that people were thinking ‘‘What are you doing in my country?” Since moving to the U.S. about 20 years ago, he has continued acting while running a Persian rug business.

When the war between Iraq and Iran was heating up in the early 1980s, Shakibi was acting and working as a reporter at a TV station in Tehran. Many of his friends were fleeing the country, but he wouldn’t leave his elderly parents or his job — until he was drafted and sent to Kurdistan. He returned after 21 months of fighting, happy to see his family and go back to work. Just a few days afterwards, the station demanded that he return to the front lines as a reporter. He pleaded with his manager, explaining that he had seen way too much fighting. It didn’t matter and he was fired.

‘‘I fought in the war so I could keep my job, and now I lost it,” he recalls, even now becoming emotional about the experience.

With 20 percent of the play’s profits earmarked for EMERGENCY, a group that offers medical care for civilian war victims, Shakibi is hoping ‘‘Dirt” will help the voiceless.

‘‘Dirt” will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday in BlackRock Center For the Arts, 12901 Town Commons Drive, Germantown. Tickets are $22, $17 for students. Visit or call 1-800-551-7328.