Word Play

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invasion silk roadLast year in early February, while my colleague and I were sitting in our Pittsburgh hotel lobby preparing for a client presentation, an older white gentleman came up to us and stared directly into my face and said “Happy New Year”.  Although taken aback, I totally knew what he meant since it was the week of Chinese New Year. Unfazed, I responded back with “Thank you, but I’m not Chinese”.  And without another word, he left.  It was surprisingly bizarre, probably innocuous, who knows, but I was deeply disturbed by it. With those three words, he singled me out, for whatever motivations he might have had, because I was Asian, because I looked Chinese, because, in this sea of white business men in suits in this grand Pittsburgh business hotel, I was “the other”.   Sure, we are singled out and treated differently all the time for a variety of different factors and characteristics (fat, sexy, smart, tattooed, shabby chic, Charlize Theron-look-alike, whatever), but to be singled out and treated differently because of your skin color and race is a searing, jarring, biting singling-out. Despite what some want to believe, we are not living in a post-racial world. So a play like Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion!, currently receiving a blistering Chicago premiere at Silk Road Rising, which focuses on how people use words to differentiate, segregate, define and re-define Arabs as the other is vital and critical. It is a provocative play that will make some people squirm in their seats, as they should!, but it is essential viewing.

Invasion! doesn’t have a clear-cut narrative and is told mainly in episodic format, with some episodes simply another view of the same event. This structure is probably going to be the main drawback for the impatient theatergoer, and  for me particularly I feel like Khemiri could have tightened up the transitions and clarified some of the shifting points of view.  But Khemiri, son of a Tunisian father and a Swedish mother and raised multi-racial in heterogeneously white Scandinavia, has very potent, cuts-close-to-the-bone things to say.  The primary conceit of Invasion! is that the name Abulkasem, a distinctly Arabic name, means different things for different people in different situations – at one point he is a hunted terrorist; at another point, a liberal feminist film-maker; at still another, your typical young second-generation Arab immigrant in Chicago trying to balance cultural identities. But regardless of who he or she is throughout the play, Abulkasem, the name and the feelings and connotations and stereotypes it connotes represents the other, the minority, the different (despite the fact that that Lincoln Park dude with the Arabic name picking up girls in John Barleycorn isn’t any different from the white dudes named John or Chad doing the same thing).

Despite the loose, meandering, somewhat confounding episodic structure, Khemiri writes some pretty damn powerful scenes. I am particularly struck by the scene in which another Abulkasem, this time an immigrant seeking asylum in the US but stuck in the byzantine immigration system, has his plea for asylum, primarily spoken in Arabic, slowly translated into vivid, shocking, terrorist mantras by his English-speaking translator, who uses words to create a fictional persona for him which directly plays into fears and prejudices.  It is powerful, breathtaking stuff- the “other” as a Bogeyman with a shoe bomb.  And in this scene, Khemiri blazingly drives home the point that it is our words, words we have control of, that we use to define and disenfranchise.

Khemiri’s combustible writing, which admirably treads the delicate line between satire and message play, is greatly enhanced by the energetic, committed foursome of Kamal Hans, Glenn Stanton, Amira Sabbagh, and Omer Abbas Salem who play a variety of roles. Anna C. Bahow’s direction is economic and fast-paced, and she starts the show off with some surprising audience participation.   She hooks us in at that moment, leading us to stare, riveted, at the ferocious, unsettling world Khemiri’s words have created.

Invasion! is playing at Silk Road Rising, Pierce Hall at the Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington, until September 15.  Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times wrote a controversial review, read more about it here.

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