I never thought I’d write—let alone be teary-eyed about—someone I never met. It was during my recent trip to the Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina, where I got to visit my dear friends Mark and Azadeh Perry, whom I had not seen for a while.
During this visit I got to hear about a young lady of the tender age of 18, Lillian Chason. This is her story.
A play about Mona
A little bit of background: In the year 2003, I moved to RTP in North Carolina to be close to my twin brother and his family. The day I arrived—straight from the airport, in fact—I got to see a play entitled A Dress for Mona performed by a devoted theater group called the Drama Circle. Many of the performers were westerners, though the play is set in the heart of the Middle East. It tells the story of Mona Mahmudnizhad, a young woman who was executed—along with nine other Bahá’í women and girls—because of her faith. She and the women with whom she was hanged were Bahá’ís.
This play about an Iranian teenager was instigated by Mark Perry, a playwright and his wife Azadeh who knew Mona in Iran. The write-up on the Drama Circle website (www.dramacircle.org) describes the situation this way:
“Shiraz, Iran 1982, fanaticism ran rampant in the streets, and Mona, as a Baha’i—a member of Iran’s largest religious minority—was the fanatic’s prime target. Based on a true story, this is a story of one teenager’s capacity to love in the face of fierce persecution”.
In the next few years a video and a documentary about A Dress for Mona were produced; the documentary won an award. During that time, I was overjoyed when Mark and Azadeh asked me to help out with other dramatic endeavors, which resulted in me co-producng a new dramatic work by Mark.
The Universal House of Justice (the world governing body of the Bahá’ís) commented on the endeavors of the Drama Circle in context with a general statement on the power of the arts, especially the performing arts:
“The Universal House of Justice wished for us to express to you its delight in learning about the recent accomplishments of the Drama Circle and to convey its warmest encouragement of your work…the arts have a special capacity not only to stimulate people’s thinking but even more, to touch their hearts and to open their eyes to new possibilities…”
This is where Lillian walks on stage—literally. A couple of years ago, Mark—now a University of North Carolina drama lecturer—embarked on the remake of A Dress for Mona. It was then that he met Lillian when she tried out for the lead role.
Lillian had a deep connection to Mona and wept when she heard Mona’s story. This connection was noticeable to everyone around her, thus making her well suited for this lead role.
It was shortly after she started rehearsals that she contracted the H1N1 flu virus and was hospitalized. After putting up a valiant fight, she could not overcome this disease and passed away December 16th 2009.
The Universal Nature of Youth Sacrifice
It is hard to overestimate the effect Lillian had on those around her, including the cast of the play. According to her family and friends, Lillian was a joy, talent, a beauty and force to be reckoned with. Her situation got a lot of local TV coverage. Thousands prayed for Lillian’s recovery and started a blood drive on her behalf. Performing the lead role of a play about a 16 year old teenager sacrificing her life for love, suddenly took a whole new meaning. Stunned cast members and producers devastated by this development, started to look for another person to play the role of Mona.
It was only an hour after the cast found a replacement that Lillian took her wings from this world and soared into the limitless spiritual world beyond.
Lillian’s parents said they felt Mona’s presence while their daughter was on life support. Azadeh’s brother-in-law is one of the Yaran (the appointed leadership of the Bahá’ís in Iran) who, like Mona, has been unjustly imprisoned in Iran for his belief in Bahá’u’lláh. No surprise that Azaedeh was profoundly moved by Lillian’s situation.
Yes, this is a story about the tragically short life of Lillian, but it is also testament to the universality of youthful spirit as well as the mystery and power of the sacrifices people make for love. I am positive Mona and Lillian are hanging out together somewhere in the “heavens”.