- Disclaimer by Tara Ahmadinejad
As COVID-19 shifted spectators and artists into domestic spaces, the everyday acts of cooking and eating provided an intimate, sensory space for theatre productions. The theatricality of the cooking demonstration has been utilized to engage spectators beyond the visual, from productions like Geffen Playhouse’s Bollywood Kitchen and Amir Nizar Zuabi’s This Is Who I Am (reviewed in September’s Theatre Journal) to Experimental Bitch Presents’s In the Kitchen. Piehole’s Disclaimer, created by Tara Ahmadinejad and Jeff Wood, brought a new approach to online alimentary performance in January 2021 during the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. Disclaimer was adapted from an in-person production presented in 2020, also using food as a frame; however, the live performance hosted on Zoom explicitly presented itself as a cooking demonstration. Audience members were emailed an ingredient list for sabzi polo, a Persian rice dish, so that they might cook along with the production. Disclaimer thus invited a material engagement beyond the screen, where audiences prepared herbs and soaked rice, touching, smelling, even tasting as the performance unfolded on the screen. However, unlike other alimentary performances, the play disrupted an edible catharsis, as the spectator never reached a finished dish. This denial of a gustatory climax asked audiences to examine their own expectations and confront what exactly food can and cannot represent. Disclaimer offers new opportunities for considering the limits of food as representation and performance, practicing care and consent for audience participation in online performance.
While the performance was set up as a cooking demonstration on Persian cuisine, the play ultimately abandoned the cooking-show format to explore the limits of representation. Upon entering the Zoom performance, I scrolled through the audience, noting others who had prepared the Basmati rice, butter, garlic, fresh herbs, fenugreek, and saffron on their kitchen counters. However, it was soon clear that the character of Chef Nargis (Ahmadinejad) was more of an aspiring chef than a confident teacher, and her reason for teaching the audience sabzi polo was really to “unpack issues and themes surrounding Iranian American identity.” Here, Chef Nargis’s challenge was revealed: can food be a medium to convey the complexities of Iranian American conflict to the online audience? Digitally overlaid graphics promising to “unveil the divine secrets of Persian cuisine” and Nargis continually getting distracted and inviting family members (played by audience members) to the Zoom screen started to suggest that I may not be completing the sabzi polo that I was anticipating for dinner. Admittedly, the title could have clued me in, but after a slew of culinary performances that centered cooking, the resulting dish, and eating as the climax of the performance, I missed the hints until fifty minutes into the ninety-minute production, when Chef Nargis exclaimed, “I have completely lost track of this whole cooking class thing, I am so, so, sorry.” Nargis then shifted approach: she had invited her whole “family” to dine, and the drama of her imagined family dinner took precedent. Nonetheless, this abandonment of form and rice was not done carelessly; rather, the drive of the show was an invitation to care.
Emphasizing care as both a theme and a form of the play, Disclaimer asked audiences to reconsider American perceptions of the US/Iranian conflict. While Chef Nargis fervently sought any form to challenge Muslim American stereotypes, the production called upon the audience to trust that finishing the meal was not a necessary goal. This included swapping the cooking-show format midway through the performance for a dramatic murder mystery. The cooking techniques were exchanged for familial characters, and while food stayed present throughout, its mimetic properties subdued. Chef Nargis narrated the entire production; however, through the use of Zoom spotlighting techniques, quick name-changes, and a thorough and efficient
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