Activist and former actress Jeanne D. recalls Silk Road Rising’s 2013 Midwest premiere of Jonas Hassan Khemiri’s Invasion!, trans. Rachel Willson-Broyles, ahead of its opening today in New York City:
By Jeanne D.
Every theatre-goer has been through the dreaded experience of sitting through a pompous, stilted, overdrawn show that gives theatre a bad name. The kind just begging to be viciously ripped apart and openly derided. The kind that makes my niece cry out of sheer boredom. Immediately leaping to mind are unimaginative renderings of Shakespeare or Wycherly or Wilde so dry that a lubricant is warranted. Unnecessary English accents, bad period costumes, and lame pinky-through-the-teacup humor.
The first few moments of Invasion! have the audience believe that another eye-rolling, yawn-inducing, butt-burning show is in store. But then a couple hecklers insist on conducting a very loud conversation unrelated to the play. Frustration begins to mount because the audience cannot hear the dull dialogue, which the two actors on stage deliver under the considerable difficulty of clearly strained concentration. Individual audience members seriously consider the options of leaving and obtaining a refund. They sympathize with the hecklers, who obviously neither connect to what is happening on stage nor desire to, yet simultaneously are annoyed by them.
The tension builds to the point that the visibly exasperated actors abruptly stop playing and, much to the audience’s immense delight (and relief), cede the stage to these same hecklers. So much for misguided “western” cultural imperialism being shoved down our gullets. The real story begins.
The question of who Abulkasem is mystifies in much the way the name Tab Jones (a thinly veiled Tom Jones) does François Racine in Bukowski’s novel Hollywood. Racine’s withering take-down of Jones would be at odds with the opinions of Tom Jones fans or those who respect his singing talent but don’t care for his music. Significantly, we learn during the play that the name Abulkasem appears in the Arabian Nights. One former heckler informs us that Abulkasem is his warm-hearted, free-spirited middle-eastern uncle who visits every Christmas.
In the eyes of his American family, this same Abulkasem becomes an unwitting victim of racism while sitting aboard a train, baffled and unconvinced by his family’s attempts to explain away the racial epithet written on his forehead while sleeping. An insecure man uncomfortable with his Indian name of Arvind handily adopts his preconceived Abulkasem player persona when trying to pick up a woman of Kurdish descent who we later discover struggles with others’ limited perceptions of her as alternately a victim of circumstance/repression, object of desire, and unassimilated foreigner in need of instruction. In her narrative, Abulkasem is the convenient name she gives to an inspirational Muslim woman director whose true name temporarily escapes her.
Abulkasem becomes a catch-all, a nullity, somehow everywhere and nowhere but never a whole individual, only what any given person needs him to be at that moment. Invasion! is a play that challenges the assumptions we make about others – particularly those of middle-eastern or Asian descent – and makes pigeon-holing and easy categorization impossible. It also shows us what inevitably gets lost in translation and cheap punditry. A sorely needed show.
Jeanne D is an activist and former Chicago actress.
Invasion! will be performed August 30-September 10 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue in New York, NY. For more information and to buy tickets online, visit http://www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOW15-06-Invasion.html.
Also, Hafiz Karmali on Jonas Hassen Khemiri and directing Invasion!: