Picture of Sayrafiezadeh
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (Courtesy/Golden Thread Productions)

The name game: Playwright mines identity issues in comic ‘Terrorist’

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh would be the first to admit that his name has shaped almost everything in his life: his childhood friendships, his professional choices, his relationship with his father and the subject matter he has tackled as an award-winning author of plays, fiction and the 2009 memoir, “When Skateboards Will Be Free,” which put him on the literary map.

What type of name is Sayrafiezadeh, anyway?

That’s one of the questions he answers in his play “Autobiography of a Terrorist,” which holds its first full-scale world premiere from April 14 to May 7 at San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions.

In the play, which ostensibly deals with the 1979 Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis, two actors query a playwright named Saïd Sayrafiezadeh about the origin of his name and its correct pronunciation, which they keep flubbing. The character named Saïd responds: “I knew what my last name meant once. My Iranian dad told me. I tried to remember. I forgot what he said … Look, I know what my first name means. That counts for something. Saïd means ‘happy’ or maybe ‘lucky.’ ”

At one point in the play, Saïd says in exasperation, “Note how it’s only ethnic minorities who are supposed to be able to explain, to whomever happens to ask, what their name means.”

Off the stage, in his real life, the writer Sayrafiezadeh said his name assumed heightened meaning in 1979, after an international crisis. At the time, he was a 10-year-old growing up in Pittsburgh, the child of an Iranian-born father and a Jewish American mother, both ardent members of the Socialist Workers Party. His parents had split when he was an infant, and he and his mother, the former Martha Harris, née Finkelstein, were leading a drab, sad working-class life. Then in November 1979, the Shah was overthrown in Iran and 52 Americans were taken hostage at the United States Embassy in Tehran. (At the time, his father was back in Iran, imprisoned for several months after his failed bid for the Iran presidency as the Socialist Workers Party’s candidate.)

Back in Pittsburgh, “all attention was drawn toward me,” Sayrafiezadeh said. Rather than trying to fly under the radar and “passing” as a Middle Easterner of other origins, Sayrafiezadeh said his mother encouraged him to promote his Iranian background in the face of widespread and virulent anti-Iran hatred.

“She wanted me to be a little comrade,” he said. She believed “the Iranian myth” that the Iranian Revolution would lead to a proletarian revolution. “She never had any affinity for being Jewish.”

Saïd Sayrafiezadeh's 2009 memoir "When Skateboards Will Be Free"As a grade-schooler, he felt the impact of the U.S.-Iranian conflict, which he detailed in “When Skateboards Will Be Free.”

“It was a horrible, terrifying, embarrassing time,” he said. “I had Jewish friends who turned on me during the hostage crisis.”

The bullying and taunting by his classmates became so oppressive when he was in sixth grade that he successfully petitioned to be transferred out of his mostly white class with many Jewish students to a predominantly African American class.

“The black students left me alone,” Sayrafiezadeh recalled. “That started for me a very long exit from being white and Jewish to feeling more comfortable around black people.”

After dropping out of the University of Pittsburgh during his senior year, Sayrafiezadeh spent a year or two floundering in Pittsburgh before moving to New York to try his hand at acting. But even in his 20s, he found that people got hung up about his name and ethnic background.

“I once asked a casting director if she would ever consider me for Italian American roles,” he said. “She said, ‘It’ll be big trouble for me if I send you out. If I need a terrorist, I’ll call you.’ ”

As an experiment, Sayrafiezadeh sent out headshots with pseudonyms, including the moniker Anthony Harris. The experiment proved successful. He got more callbacks.

But the lesson also taught him that he couldn’t sustain such a charade. As an artist trying to find his voice— which eventually led to writing —he felt that changing his name would weaken his ties to his authentic identity and his personal history.

“When I was a child, my name was the only thing connecting me to my father,” he said. “Changing the name would have been a complete repudiation.”

Sayrafiezadeh eventually transitioned from acting to writing. “Autobiography of a Terrorist” was actually completed in 2005 — a year before “Skateboard” — but in a post-9/11 world, he said the title and subject matter were “a bit too incendiary to touch.”

But the play did capture the attention of one company, San Francisco’s Golden Thread, whose 20-year mission has been to mount thought-provoking plays dealing with a wide range of Middle Eastern subjects and perspectives.

“I fell in love with Saïd’s writing after reading one of his other plays,” said Evren Odcikin, Golden Thread’s director of marketing and new plays, who is directing “Terrorist.”

“I am interested in plays about identity, but that address it in a way that is not being talked about now,” Odcikin said.

“Terrorist,” he added, “is a comedy with complexity … Saïd has no fear of revealing that ugly, complicated part of himself [that comes] from a raw, vulnerable, opened-up space.”

Sayrafiezadeh’s vulnerability is now manifesting itself off the page, apart from the world of plays, stories and memoirs. It is his odyssey to understand himself as a Jew.

“The extent of my understanding my Jewishness is very limited,” he said. “We didn’t celebrate holidays, and I did not grow up with any sense of being Jewish and what it entailed.”

Only now has he given himself permission to explore it. He spends time with the Harris-Finkelstein side of his mother’s family, enjoying holiday get-togethers and seders. Discussing his journey of self-discovery, he said, “It’s a work in progress.”

“Autobiography of a Terrorist,” April 14 to May 7 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F. $15-$36. goldenthread.org/2017-Season/Autobiography

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.