Reza Abdoh was American theatre’s greatest punk

Though he was only 32 at the time of his passing, the Iranian-American theatre director Reza Abdoh’s (1963–95) mark on the world of theatre was unmistakable. Relentlessly inventive, he pushed his actors—and audiences—to their limits amid ambitious, unusual, disorienting stage sets. Abdoh’s aesthetic language borrowed from fairy tales, BDSM, talk shows, raves, video art, and the history of avant-garde theatre.

The Hip-Hop Waltz of Eurydice, 1990Written and directed by Reza Abdoh, a photograph of the production at Sigma Festival, Bordeaux 1992, photo: Patrick Veyssière

Abdoh was American theatre’s greatest punk.

His ruthless commitment to experimental performance pushed the boundaries of theatre and sobered viewers to the stark reality of queer rights in the 1980s-90s America – an influence in direct line with his queer contemporaries like David Wojnarowicz and Keith Haring. His plays, which were usually set in abandoned warehouses and buildings, took theatre out of the theatre hall itself and meshed it with reality while treating social and political life with pure anarchy.

Quotations From a Ruined City, 1994 Written by Salar Abdoh and Reza Abdoh; directed by Reza Abdoh, a photograph of the production at 448 West 16th Street, New York, photo: Jan Deen

At the age of 32, Abdoh sadly passed away from Aids.

In 1988, Abdoh was diagnosed with Aids – the same year David Wojnarowicz appeared at ACT UP’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) protest with a jacket that read “If I die of Aids – forget burial – just drop my body on the steps of the FDA”. Aids was at a crisis point and queer artists of this moment were unflinching in stating so. When reflecting upon the inherent sexuality of Abdoh’s work, critic Hilton Als stated in The New Yorker that, “What was on his mind from the time he tested positive for HIV, in 1988 – when he applied for a green card that year under Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act, an HIV test was required – was what was happening to the queer body in America.”

The themes which Abdoh radically addresses, particularly those of homophobia and racism, are still scarily pertinent today making his works forever relevant to a world still fighting for human rights. As Als critically calls for, hopefully, the world will soon listen to Abdoh’s desperate plea for humanity.

Abdoh’s work is still talked about and referenced in the theatre community today. It has become regularly incorporated into college and university syllabi. It has become legendary.

© 1993 - 2023 GAY45

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