Iranian Jews in Los Angeles and New York who have pursued creative careers in the entertainment industry have made a splash during the last 10 years— especially those involved with comedy who draw from their own community’s experiences to produce plays, films and even stand-up comedy routines. Two of the community’s emerging Iranian Jewish comedic minds, Amir Ohebsion and Fariborz (David) Diaan have recently written and produced a hit musical comedy play “Death, A Very Serious Comedy”. Interestingly enough, the topic of their production is ripped straight from the latest news headlines of business fraud facing Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community. Their play focuses on the trials and tribulations of an Iranian Jewish businessman who suffers a massive heart attack and dies after he discovers his wealth has disappeared because of his investments in a ponzi scheme. The main character must then deal with what unique and hilarious fate awaits him in the afterlife.
The two sold out February showings of “Death, A Very Serious Comedy” in Los Angeles opened to rave reviews from L.A. audiences. I recently had a chance to chat with both Amir and Fariborz before the upcoming performance of their play at California State University Northridge on June 5th. The following are some highlights on my interview…
You both are Iranian Jews, the main character in the play is an Iranian Jew and there are some themes in the play that the community here in the U.S. has been grappling with for years. Why did you decide to draw content from the community and how do you think it will impact the perceptions non-Iranians have about our community?
AO: Our aspiration was to hold a mirror up to the Iranian community and at the same time have cross-over appeal to American audiences by offering a glimpse into the lives of their Iranian-American neighbors a la “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”— except ours is more like “My Big Fat Persian Funeral”. That’s why we chose to present the play in English at the risk of alienating some of our Iranian fan base. We believe that the non-Iranians will relate to the play because the themes we touch on are universal.
FD: Through satire, we aimed to help our community look at itself from an outside point of view. No community is perfect and we cannot grow if to start with we cannot laugh at our own habits and lifestyles!
Undoubtedly, those familiar with the Namvar case can see how that case may have influenced the content of this play. This is obviously a touchy subject for the Iranian Jewish community, so what approach did you take in writing this comedy and were any special efforts made not to offend the audience?
FD: We made an effort to ensure that the play is not perceived as being about any particular individual or individuals. Among other topics, our play explores ‘greed’ and the relentless pursuit of material wealth at all costs, and therefore it is NOT about any of the individuals who took advantage of others in the past few years by embezzling money.
Many younger Iranian American Jews often find humor in the interaction of their parents and grandparents with the larger American community. How funny is our immigrant community and how well does our experience as Iranian Jews in the U.S. translate into the making of a comedy play or film?
FD: As Middle-Easterners, we are so emotional and dramatic in the way we express our thoughts and feelings, which makes us the perfect subject for a comedic story. A Westerner says “I love my grandchildren”. A Middle Eastern person says, “I sacrifice my life for my grandchildren”.
AO: Our play indeed contains several comedic cross-cultural interactions which the younger generation will find amusing. For example, the main character, David is trying to schmooze his way into heaven or the chutzpah with which he tries to justify his vices on Earth…
Death and dying seem to be very dark themes for the comedy genre in any creative production. Why did you choose these themes for your play and how has the content resonated with the audiences?
AO: I’ve always found it perplexing that as Persians, we Jews and Muslims alike, treat Death as a taboo subject, as though by ignoring it, we can somehow avoid it! In stark contrast, the Buddhist tradition regards Death as a natural part of life, and deliberately examines it in an effort to minimize the suffering that it can bring if we are not prepared for it. My personal motivation for writing this play was thus to employ comedy to present Death from a perspective that inspires us to cherish every fleeting moment we are alive. The feedback we have received thus far has been overwhelmingly positive, and many have gone out of their way to express to us that they were moved by the play’s message.
FD: Yes, this play is actually not about DEATH. It’s about celebrating LIFE. It’s about being in the moment. It’s about happiness and joy. Sometimes, the best way to appreciate life is to be reminded of our inevitable death.
Even though you both wrote the play and one of you stars in it, why was there a decision to have the play directed by non-Iranians and what do you think that brings to this particular production?
FD: Initially we intended to direct the play ourselves but later we decided to bring in an outside perspective. It paid off. We enlisted two professional American directors with a solid background in theater. They embraced our project and brought a lot of artistic value to the work, for which we are grateful.
This play seems to have been quite the labor of love. Can you share some insights into the time and effort that went into putting this production together?
FD: We kept writing and writing and making improvements. We did not want to rush the work. It took us over a year to feel comfortable with the content. We then took another six months to cast the play, choreograph the musical numbers and rehearse until we finally thought we had a work of art to present to our loyal fans. It has been an amazing experience and we have been paid back tenfold by the amazingly positive reaction of the audience so far. We are so thankful for the love and appreciation we have received.
Are there any plans to take the play on the road to other cities and if so, what do you have lined up?
FD: We will eventually take the play to all other major cities including New York, San Francisco, and Toronto. We welcome feedback from promoters and producers in other cities who may want to partner with us.
You both have obviously chosen careers in entertainment and the creative realm which is unique for most Iranian Jews in the U.S. who are typically lawyers, doctors, engineers or business people. What prompted you to get into the business and what reaction have you had from family members about this career path?
AO: Well, I can tell you that it’s not easy to overcome years of conditioning. I myself was in the business world for 10 plus years but ultimately found it unfulfilling. So I finally mustered up the courage to take the plunge in pursuit of my true passion, writing. My family was a bit concerned at first but has been increasingly supportive seeing that this is what makes me happy. I should also mention that this very topic comes up in our play when David is reminded at the gate of heaven that he gave up his passion for singing and instead pursued material wealth only to lose it all in the blink of an eye.
FD: Many of the most successful individuals in the world have said that true success is in doing what you love the most. Yes, we both have been entrepreneurs and have tried to make a living in different areas. But obviously this is where our passion lies. We love to write, perform and bring joy to the community.
What plans if any do you have for future creative endeavors containing subject matter pulled from the Iranian Jewish community?
FD: We will see what life puts on our path. Hopefully we will be able to continue to bring fresh and relevant work on to the stage or the screen as we go along.
AO: By the way, “Death” is not our first collaboration. We previously wrote and produced “The Belind Date & The Vedding” which was a satirical look at the Iranian-Jewish dating and wedding scene.
What advice do you have for younger Iranian American Jews who might be considering a career in the entertainment or creative field?
FD: Don’t get into this field just for the glamour of it. It is like any other field. You should get into it knowing that it will take hard work and discipline to succeed. You will only be able to keep up if you are truly passionate about it. Of course like any other field, one should hope that the required talent for that field is also present.
AO: Follow your bliss!
For more information and tickets for the June 5th production of “Death, A Very Serious Comedy” at California State University’s Plaza Del Sol, visit the play’s website.