Muhtadia Rice re-enacts the life of 19th century Persian poet Tahirih in benefit performances

By Jannise Johnson, Staff Reporter MID-CITY -- As a corporate sales executive in the early 1970's, Muhtadia Rice mastered the ins and outs of being successful in a man's world.

She was the only woman selling office machines for Xerox Corp. in California, drove and expensive sports car, talked shop with the boys and broke sales records. She constantly worked 10- to 14-hour days in an effort t prove herself worthy. She was the living embodiment of the corporate lifestyle, with no formal training in the performing arts.

Considering all this, it's hard to imagine that the same person would now be re-enacting the life of a persecuted 19th century poet named Tahirih on stages throughout the United States, but Rice just completed two performances of "A Woman and Her Words" at the Baha'i Faith Center in Baldwin Hills in honor of Women's History Month and is contemplating future appearances.

Rice, who lives in the Mid-City section of Los Angeles, said the story of Tahirih -- who was persecuted in 19th century Persia because of her spiritual and scholastic aptitude at a time when Persian women and girls were not allowed to go to school or read -- appealed to her because it mirrors so many of the things she has gone through in life.

"I think as a girl-child, I related very strongly to the differences between boys and girls," Rice said. "I could see and experience the differences in how I was treated as opposed to my brother and my male cousins."

Rice became fascinated with Tahirih's life in 1993 after she was exposed to some of the translations of the spiritual leader's' poetry. Her performances tell Tahirih's story through the dramatic re-enactment of the poet's words.

A Persian stage director named Parviz Nazerian thought it would be a good idea for Rice to read Tahirih's poetry on stage. But instead of a simple, dry reading, he thought it would go over better with audiences if she sang the words. It was during this time that Rice discovered she could sing.

"In giving her a voice, I discovered my own," she recalled.

Tahirih was a disciple in the Babi religion, a predecessor to the Baha'i Faith which originated in Persia in the early 1800's. While Baha'i is a separate and independent religion, it has roots in Islam "similarly to how Christianity is rooted in Judaism," explained Rice, who is a Baha'i adherent.

Rice, an entertainment consultant and longtime human rights activist, has been performing the one-woman play for free since 1997 with all proceeds going to charitable organizations. Proceeds from recent performances have gone to the Amy Biehl Foundation, which provides the assistance to the South African Township where the young activist was murdered in 1993.

Rice hopes to obtain sponsorships the next time she resurrects Tahirih. She said it would be nice to get paid for her work, but if she doesn't, it only means she will continue doing the play unpaid.

"I'm doing this because it's that important," Rice said. "So, if 300 people see it and ti changes on person's life, then it's worth it."

Retired state Senator Diane Watson, a friend of Rice's for the past five years, has seen Rice's performance and received the Baha'i Center's Tahirih award in 1998 for political leadership.

"I think she's a very bright, intelligent and creative person," Watson said of Rice. "Her portrayal of Tahirih was magnificent and it fits right into Women's History Mont. We need to hearken back to those of courage who stood alone and were persecuted in every possible way."

Because the persecution of women continues today in many parts of the world, Rice thinks that the more people who are exposed to this story, the more people will be enlightened.

"You cannot squelch truth," Rice said. "The truth always rises."

©Copyright 1999, LOS ANGELES TIMES

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