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Foojan Nixie Shabrang explains how playing the title role in Parifam has changed her life

Nazanin Shoja and Foojan Nixie Shabrang
In Parifam, Nazanin Shoja (left) and Foojan Nixie Shabrang are two former childhood friends in Iran who reconnect as adults in Canada. Photo by Sina Pourzal.

Vancouver actor Foojan Nixie Shabrang says that she has been described as “ethnically ambiguous”. It’s not always positive. Shabrang tells Pancouver that sometimes, she’s perceived as not looking sufficiently white for certain roles. Yet because of her lighter complexion, the Tehran-born performer has been deemed not “Iranian” enough other parts. This occurs even though Iranians have a wide variety of skin tones.

In light of this, Shabrang is thrilled to be cast in the title role in Aki Yaghoubi’s Parifam, which will be at the Cultch Historic Theatre from April 4 to 14 as part of the seventh annual Femme Festival. Panthea Vatandoost is directing the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Medusa Theatre Society co-production.

Parifam centres around an Iranian-born painter and architect named Parifam, who’s living in Canada.

“It is just a really powerful play and role,” Shabrang says over Zoom. “I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything so hefty to sink my teeth into.”

According to the playwright, Yaghoubi, Parifam meets herself in her past through her paintings. The other main character is a documentary maker named Ramak (Nazanin Shoja), who was Parifam’s childhood friend in Iran. Other characters include Parifam’s husband, Casra, and 22-year-old son, Kian, as well as Ramak’s husband, Justin.

Shabrang says that she has never been involved in a production with so many characters and crew members of Iranian ancestry. However, when she first read the script, Shabrang worried about parallels between herself and her character, who wants to create an Iranian-style museum in Canada. Those concerns dissipated as Shabrang delved deeper into the play.

“At the first few glances, it was like this person is messed up,” she says. “Now, almost at the end of the process, stepping into her persona and her tempo has shifted me on a chemical level, which I’m really grateful for.”

Shabrang says character changes her perspective

The actor says that Parifam is complex. On the one hand, Shabrang says that she has incredible love for everyone around her. Yet Parifam can come across as harsh.

“I’m still discovering the layers in the character,” Shabrang acknowledges.

Shabrang spent the first 11 years of her life in Iran. And she believes that playing Parifam has had a positive impact on her personality.

“I think really fast and I talk really fast and I move really fast,” Shabrang concedes. “That sometimes means that I say or do things that I don’t mean to. And I only realize it when I see the impact of it on other people.”

She says that she never anticipated this role would help her learn to slow down and become more thoughtful. But that’s what happened.

“It’s been interesting observing my own biases because Parifam and her best friend have kind of opposite political views on how they should reveal their culture,” Shabrang continues.

She reveals that in the past, she didn’t speak much about Iranian culture with non-Iranian friends. That’s in part because of the stigma associated with media messaging about Iranians. But now, she’s trying to look for opportunities to speak more about the culture.

“It was quite jarring when I had my closest friends come and read the script with me and they would say ‘I-ran’ instead of Iran [‘ear-ron’], for example,” the actor states. “I was, like, ‘Why is this happening?’ I realized I never talk about it unless it’s with people who are clearly aware or part of the diaspora.”

Parifam Aki Yaghoubi for Shabrang article
Like the main characters in Parifam, playwright Aki Yaghoubi immigrated to Canada from Iran.

Playwright creates strong female characters

Even though Parifam focuses on strong, independent women of Iranian ancestry, the play doesn’t directly address the massive women’s uprising in Iran.

“But I think in its essence, it’s very much in line with that effort of women’s rights and just general rights of the human population,” Shabrang says. “That’s kind of cool.”

Last year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee granted the Nobel Peace Prize to one of the movement’s leaders, human-rights activist Narges Mohammadi. Mohammadi was unable to receive the award in person because she is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Iran for campaigning to abolish the death penalty.

The Cultch presents the world premiere of Parifam at the Historic Theatre from April 4 to 14, with opening night on April 5. Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre and Medusa Theatre Society are producing the play, which is part of the Cultch’s Femme Festival. For tickets and more information, visit the Cultch website. Follow Pancouver on X @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

To contribute to a GoFundMe campaign for Medusa Theatre Society, visit this page.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.