In the House of Sargon

Friday, October 8, 1993
Section: Friday
Column: After hours
By Achy Obejas

Michael Zerang has uncanny timing.

Two years ago, as he premiered “Hot Sands,” the first part of his Middle Eastern trilogy, audiences at Randolph Street Gallery heard the first news about the outbreak of the Gulf War.

“The piece dealt with everything that led up to the Gulf War-especially the idea that most Arab nations are 20th Century inventions carved out by the French and the British-you know, Iraq became a nation in 1920, Syria in 1921, Lebanon around then, too, and Israel, of course, in 1948,” he says. “But even though people read all kinds of things into it, `Hot Sands’ wasn’t about the Gulf War.”

He wryly notes that something similar is happening with “The House of Sargon,” the final installment in the trilogy, as the world is riveted by the sight of former enemies Yitzak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn. ” `The House of Sargon’ is a journey through the Middle East,” he says. “It’s not about the current peace process, but it all ties in together, I suppose.”

“The House of Sargon” closes out a two-week run at Link’s Hall this weekend and features text, music, movement and film.

Of Assyrian descent, Zerang explored the destinies of non-Arab peoples, such as Assyrians, Armenians, Turks and Kurds, in the middle passage of the trilogy, “The Death of Mar Shimun,” which was performed last year.

The new piece picks up with the historical themes involved in the story of Sargon, one of the kings of ancient Assyria. “At the height of the empire, when the Assyrians conquered new lands, they would take the people and spread them throughout the empire,” explains Zerang. “This would encourage intermingling. There was constant displacement.”

For all the historical specificity, however, “The House of Sargon” is more impressionistic than linear; it focuses on texture instead of a narrative line.

“The whole thing is a road story,” Zerang says. “In my piece, Sargon is an Assyrian cabdriver who takes a Western couple on a trip through the modern Middle East. He displaces them, in the way that he’s displaced here.”

Known more as a musician than as a performance artist, Zerang is constantly busy these days: His 11-year-old free improv group, Liof Munimula, is working regularly; the Vandermark Quartet, a kind of heavy metal jazz group to which he belongs, gigs weekly at the Hothouse and has released a new CD, “Big Head Eddie”; and his partnership with percussionist Hamid Drake continues to be challenging.

“In fact, we’re doing a piece together on the bill with `The House of Sargon’, ” he says. “It’s called `Barking Dogs and Deaf Lizards.’ It’s a percussion performance duet, brand new. All my work is going really well lately. I feel very, very lucky.”

PHOTO: “In the House of Sargon” features text, movement, music and film and involves Middle Eastern historical themes.

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