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Iran's Original Movie Starlet Has Been Living in the East Bay All This Time

And now you can see her in a play.

Left to right: Vida Ghahremani, L Peter Callender, Sofia Ahmad.


When she was 17, Vida Ghahremani kissed a man and was expelled from her Iranian high school. That was 60 years ago, before the days of ultra-buzz kill ayatollahs, but it was a national scandal. After all, they kissed on the silver screen. Ghahremani was one of the Iran's first movie stars, earning her national acclaim and a boot out the door from her scandalized teachers (even before the revolution Iran had very particular ideas about a woman‘s place). These days she lives in the East Bay, teaching theater and Persian language classes and acting. You can see her in the world premiere of Isfahan Blues at the African American Shakespeare Company this Saturday, a play written by her daughter and largely based on Ghahremani’s own incredible life.

Isfahan Blues, a collaboration between AASC and Golden Thread, combines three real historical events into a fairy tale of sorts: Jazz superstar Duke Ellington’s musical tour of the Middle East in 1963 (Duke was on a mission from the State Department to counter the rising popularity of Soviet art worldwide); the famed platonic love affair between actress Lena Horne and Ellington’s piano player and composer, the openly gay Billy Strayhorn (AASC artistic director L. Peter Callender plays a character based on Strayhorn); and Ghahremani’s life and career. Though set 52 years in the past, the script turned out to be surreally timely: Callender initially objected to his character’s rhetoric about race relations, saying “I was born in the West Indes. This country has been very good to me.” Then Baltimore and Oakland boiled over and Callender was so struck that he started choking up in rehearsals.

Sofia Ahmad plays opposite Callender as his (non) love interest, but Gharemani also appears as an older version of the same character (i.e., herself). In the late ’50s and ‘60s, newly oil-rich Iran went nuts for American music, movies, and celebrity culture. Gharemani got her big break when she heard about a casting call at a local theater. She needed the permission of her father, an army colonel, to try out, and he personally escorted her to the audition, to the amazement of the casting directors. “Film was something new there. The last thing most men wanted was their young daughter on the screen,” she says. But Dad obliged, colonel‘s stripes and all.

She got the part and scandalized the country by delivering what she claims was Iran’s first onscreen kiss. “Lips to lips, a remarkable sight at the time,” she says. She made 15 movies in eight years, with awesome titles like Hunters of the Salt Desert and Love & Vengeance, before marriage and motherhood temporarily retired her from acting. She and her husband opened a dance club (Isfahan Blues takes place in a similar establishment), where she found fame a tough business partner, particularly when pushy men assumed they could get her to swoon for them as easily as she did onscreen. “Some of those incidents were so bizarre it could only be true,” says Yeghiazarian, who worked a couple of the anecdotes into the show. “Certain men just couldn’t deal with a woman expressing her sexuality so openly.” 

Later Gharemani moved to the US to attend college (she made up the difference from that expulsion eventually) and reunite with family, which helpfully got her clear of Iranian politics. She went back into movies, recently appearing in A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Stoning of Soraya M. Now 78, this will be her first time onstage in five or six years, but chance she won’t permanently retire until they have to wheel her away. “Being onstage and in front of the camera is life to me.“ The play, like Gharemani herself, reminds us that countries are more than the sum of their politics. “I’m very honored to do this play, and for my daughter to have remembered all these stories I told her growing up. In the future, I’d like to see friendship between nations, because that’s what this story means to us.” Isfahan Blues opens Saturday. 

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