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TIME, The Unknown Variable

March 17th, 2020 was meant to be the first preview of My Dear Hussein; a new play by Nahal Navidar, co-produced by Momentary Theatre and Silk Road Rising. The play tells the story of Parvanah, a character made from images and memories of Nahal's brief childhood in Iran before she, her mother, and her brother immigrated to the Albany area of New York state (randomly, the same area code where I grew up, although we wouldn't meet until much later in Chicago). Her father had to stay behind in Iran for many years more, which she wrote about back in 2018.

From left: Ninos Baba, Shadee Vossoughi, Rom Barkhordar, Joan Nahid, and Omer Abbas Salem

Rehearsals for My Dear Hussein began in February 2020. In addition to producing, I was fortunate to be able to serve the play as this production's dramaturg. As a part of that dramaturgy, I'd compiled a website of resources with historical context for the actors to immerse themselves in the world of the play. A crucial moment in that history (maybe the most crucial) was the 1953 American-abetted coup that overthrew democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Only one year earlier, in January 1952, Mohammad Mossadegh had been named TIME magazine’s person of the year. To access the article from the archives of TIME, I had to purchase a subscription to the magazine. Of course I planned to cancel the subscription once I got what I needed. But then time…got away from me. It got away from us all. My Dear Hussein was meant to preview four years ago, today. Instead, four days before that, the pandemic shut down our production alongside almost every other production and public gathering across the globe.

Nahal prepares for her livingroom stage debut as "Clerical Cat."

Early on, we established ourselves as a quarantine unit; myself, Nahal, her husband Jordan, and their dog Pashmak. We celebrated my birthday with a watch party of Cats, dancing around the house with whiskers etched in eyeliner on our faces. We sampled all the combinations of chips and salsa we could scrounge together from the barren supermarket shelves. In retrospect, those were the good old days, or at least we made the best of them despite our collective human trauma and the personal grief Nahal felt for her play. After finishing a draft of Iran Melancholia (a Momentary new play commission), she took a step back from dramatic writing. In essay form, she wrote about that experience; mourning the production that never was while looking ahead to the pregnancy that soon could be. Eventually, it made sense for us to start social distancing from one another. As I returned to work in person, Nahal was making slow but steady progress in her fertility journey. At the end of 2020, Nahal and her husband moved back to upstate New York (where her mother still lived). In June, 2021, Nahal gave birth to a beautiful curly-haired boy and timed moved forward with a delicate dance of joy and melancholia.

In July 2022, I was visiting my own family in New York; the second time I'd seen my father and stepmother since the start of the pandemic. Nahal's own father was visiting her that same week. It looked like our itineraries might line up to see one other once he headed back out of town; on the 4th of July (god bless America). But on the afternoon of July 3rd, I received a text: "I have to cancel tomorrow. My dad passed out and he's going to the hospital. Emergency." I didn't see Nahal that trip. She lost her father, unexpectedly, after time had kept their stories separate for long.

Jacob's TIME Magazines, 2020-2024

For four years now, I’ve been subscribed to TIME magazine, which coincidentally shifted from a weekly to a bi-weekly publication in March 2020. The magazines now sit stacked beneath my television set. Although it’s half as many issues as it would have been before the pandemic, it’s still a hefty stack; some 104 if my calculations are correct (52 weeks divided by 2 is 26 times four years). The cover stories document the ebb and flow of COVID cases, ongoing inequity, the election (and the unrest that unfolded as a result), the climate crisis, the Ukraine crisis, the Palestinian crisis, the fall of Twitter and the rise of Taylor Swift—who snagged the same coveted cover Mossadegh did back in 1952. In 2022, the magazine recognized The Women of Iran, who have risen up against religious oppression with unprecedented bravery and transparency (oppression that uprose as a result of that same coup against Mossadegh now 70 years ago). Time has passed so differently than expected. But for all the stories told on those covers, there are so many more that don't get told.

Several months ago, Nahal came to me with one of those stories. In what feels like absolutely no time at all, Nahal's completed The Unknown Variable. While the early scenes have their roots in the work Nahal did with Iran Melancholia four years ago, these new pages carry with them the weight and the wisdom of all that's been lost since. Intrinsically tied to that loss, however, the play tenderly cradles moments of concentrated beauty, humor, and joy. These are the moments (personal and precious) that move us forward against the pressures of political systems and the inevitabilities of human existence that make it so damned difficult . Somehow, The Unknown Variable holds all these truths and more in its carefully-calculated articulation of the unquantifiable meaning of life.

March 17th is also Nahal’s birthday. Today is the annual acknowledgment of an exceptionally resilient human, an incredibly insightful artist, and an unmatched friend. But it's a special birthday. It feels different and new. In less than two weeks, Nahal's words will finally resound on stage again! This coming Tuesday, March 19th, is Nowruz; the Persian marker of the vernal equinox and first day of spring. On Wednesday, we'll assemble for our first in-person rehearsal. We've been connected (but also confined) by Zoom until now. Like everything time has given us, this technology is both a blessing and a curse. But it's the blessing that overcomes the curse today.

On Mach 29th at 7pm or March 30th at 2pm or 7pm, I hope you'll take time, momentary though it may be, to sit with me in community with Nahal; in celebration of her Bābā, Nasser; and in solidarity for our shared humanity. Reserve your pay-what-you-want tickets here.

Then, in April, I might finally cancel my subscription to TIME.

Nahal's Haft-Sin; a table of seven objects (each starting with "s," each symbolizing renewal) for Nowruz 2020.

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