Duke Ellington’s spirit electrifies ‘Isfahan Blues’

In a historic meeting of two cultures in 1963, the Duke Ellington Orchestra played three concerts in Iran. Now two San Francisco theater companies present “Isfahan Blues,” a play that imagines what might have happened if one of Duke's musicians slipped away from the band and had an adventure with an Iranian actress.

“When they meet in a nightclub in Iran he's a fish out of water. But in many ways she’s the same thing. She’s a young woman who is surrounded by all of these men who are either protecting her or are controlling her. Together, in each other, they find freedom,” says playwright Torange Yeghiazarian, founding artistic director of Golden Thread Productions, a company she says is devoted to sharing alternative perspectives of the Middle East.

Golden Thread and the African-American Shakespeare Co. have been collaborating for two years on the world premiere of “Isfahan Blues,” which opens this week. Yeghiazarian wrote the part of Ray, the musician, for AASC Artistic Director L. Peter Callender, who helped shape the role in two workshops. The actress, Bella, is based on Yeghiazarian's mother Vida Ghahremani, who was a film star and club owner in Iran when Ellington’s orchestra toured there. Ghahremani plays the older Bella, who conjures her past in the show, and Sofia Ahmad appears as the younger actress.

Although Ellington is not a character in the play, his spirit is present in it. Yeghiazarian calls him “an amazing American ambassador.”

Her inspiration for writing the show was hearing a song called “Isfahan,” named after an legendary Iranian city, that Ellington recorded when he returned from the tour in Iran.

Rights to use the music, however, were not available, so Bay Area jazz maestro Marcus Shelby was recruited to compose an original score. He became part of a process Yeghiazarian calls “two companies that might be considered marginal coming together.”

She clarifies, “But in a way we're telling a very mainstream story. I think we're redefining what marginal means. We're all working together to tell this Iranian-American story when there's a murmur of re-establishing the political relationship between Iran and the U.S. I think it's an amazing time, and I hope that people will come and celebrate with us.”


Isfahan Blues

Presented by African-American Shakespeare Company, Golden Thread Productions

Where: Buriel Clay Theater, 762 Fulton St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes May 24

Tickets $15 to $34


artsDuke EllingtonGolden Thread ProductionsIsfahan Blues

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