Mani Soleymanlou dissects identity and binary thinking in Zéro

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Zéro | Orange Noyée, in collaboration with Le Théâtre français du CAN | Mani Soleymanlou | Théâtre la Seizième | Scotiabank Dance Centre | February 9 – 12, 2022

Standing beside a mountain of chairs, Mani Soleymanlou tells the story of the night in Iran that his father was abducted and interrogated. He was a young child at the time and the family decided to immigrate to Canada to escape the violence in Iran. Now with a son of his own, he alternates between recounting the story of that night and talking about his hopes for his son, his struggle to define his own identity, and the grey areas between many binaries including the political left and right.

All of this is done with impeccable comic timing, a skillful building of the narrative, and intelligent writing that points out contradictions and difficulties with identity and how to define it. For example, he says, even though he’s from Iran he’s not Muslim. He’s heterosexual, binary, and cisgender. He’s a leftist, well centre-leftist. He’s not vegan. He composts. He fears that his son will grow up in a world on fire full of poisoned water. How do all these aspects of his identity coalesce? How should he decide which parts of his Iranian culture to pass on to his son?

As he grapples with these questions, we learn more about his past, about his experience at a theatre audition for “terrorist number 2.” In Farsi, zero means ‘the void,’ and it seems Soleymanlou is searching to fill an as-yet unidentified void—perhaps a connection to his former home that he can’t return to, that his son has never seen and will have even less of a connection to.

Along with being a gifted storyteller, Soleymanlou’s physicality adds to his performance. While explaining the seven symbols of the Iranian new year celebration, Nowruz, he crafts a unique gesture for each one, adding on to the series as he explains them until he’s acting out all seven in a row.

Soleymanlou also contemplates the role of language in forming identity and creating culture. He explains that when talking about dreaming in Farsi one says, “I saw sleep” as opposed to the French “I made a dream” and the English “I had a dream.” He worries that when his parents die, he will have nobody left to speak Farsi with

As our society moves towards talking about diversity and acknowledging cultural differences to a greater degree, Soleymanlou explains, “The more we talk about diversity, the more I feel like I’m disappearing. My singularity is drowned in an ocean of particularities.” He isn’t sure how his own identity fits into this matrix. The mountain of chairs begins to symboloize this ocean of particularities and variations on identity.

Overall, he hopes that his son can start over at ground zero and grow up without any of these concerns, that he will not worry about what language he dreams in, how to define his identity, or how to fill the void of a lost culture. He hopes that the stories we tell our children will be the right ones to instill in them the right values. As he says, if the same message is shared daily in our newspapers, it will have an impact on how we treat people.

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