Many Iranian families who could, left Iran during the revolution in 1979. But Ana Bayat’s family members did things a little differently. They left their native Tehran years before the revolution to go live in Barcelona—and came back to the country after the Revolution had started. Bayat, who now lives in the Bay Area and teaches Modern Languages at Saint Mary’s College of California, says these moves happened for two reasons: to Spain because of her father’s romantic nature and back to Iran because of financial concerns.
Her father learned to dance flamenco and bolero as a boy and had always loved Spain and its culture, so the family moved there when Bayat was just six years old. Her grandmother had a business making ready-to-wear clothes in Iran (Bayat says she still sometimes runs into people who tell her they bought a dress from her grandmother 40 years ago), which supported the whole family. But with the revolution times were hard, and her grandmother needed Bayat’s family to come back and help her run the business. So they moved back when Bayat was 14.
She loved Spain and she was not happy about leaving. “Initially, I was inconsolable,” she said. “I was crying and crying, and my auntie said, ‘You’ve been crying for eight months.’”
Theater was what saved her, Bayat says, She trained in the Stanislavski system at the same school where her father had gone years before. Now her one-woman show about her experience of being Iranian in Barcelona, and then feeling European in Iran, Mimi’s Suitcase, is coming to Theatre of Yugen at NOH Space January 23 to January 25.
The show has toured internationally, including stops in Los Angeles, Miami, Cologne, Toronto, and Edinburgh where it was “Pick of the Fringe” at the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In Mimi’s Suitcase, Bayat speaks four languages (English, Farsi, Spanish and French) and plays 27 characters. Bayat says taking on the different roles isn’t tiring—rather, she finds it pleasurable.
“It’s so much fun to do the accents and to think to yourself, ‘How does a consulate security officer talk?’” she said. “You have to sometimes think, ‘Well, let’s change this,’ and it’s born on the spot, and it feels very much alive.”
When Bayat left Barcelona to move to Tehran, where women were veiled and Western culture was forbidden, it was a big shock. Bayat and her friends all wanted to listen to ‘80s pop stars like Madonna, Michael Jackson, Boy George, and Billy Idol. So they would get them, and the latest movies like Dirty Dancing, on the streets (something that will be familiar to readers of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis.)
“Once a week these men would come with briefcase full movies and cassettes,” Bayat said. “It was like Amazon or something.”
Bayat left Tehran to live in England, where she studied English and continued taking theater classes. She moved to the Bay Area and started writing Mimi’s Suitcase in 2007 in a solo performance class with W. Kamua Bell, and finished it in 2015.
Bayat appreciates the reaction from audiences.
“People laugh a lot, which is wonderful,” she said. “It’s been many years, and it’s good to see we can laugh at things that were painful at the time, like a party being raided. There are very deep and serious moments too.”
Bayat has hopes that this show, which has been going for four years, will go on to another life.
“I have big dreams for it,” she said. “I imagine it as a musical. The pop music of the ’80s is such a big part of it.”
January 23- January 25
Theater of Yugen at NOH Space
More information here