- Published on Wednesday, 19 September 2012 10:30
- Category: Culture
“A man who has a language consequently possesses the world
expressed and implied by that language.”
~ Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
When you hear the name, Abulkasem, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Think about it for a minute without any politically-correct editing.
Taxi driver? Convenience store clerk? Suicide bomber?
The image that pops into your head may not be of your own choosing, explains Crowded Fire Theater’s dramaturg, Laura Brueckner:
“It’s a composite that your pattern-matching brain, and mine, has assembled from the images and linguistic associations we have absorbed. This picture, with its own key sets of characteristics, is constantly repeated and reinforced by movies, the news, political rhetoric, etc. And the less we look directly at this picture, the more powerful it is.”
INVASION!, the provocative Obie-award winning play by Swedish/Tunisian novelist, Jonas Hassen Khemiri, explores race, identity and language and how these ideas often intersect to creative monolithic narratives about “the Other” in a post-9/11 America.
Using an inventive interplay of language and characterizations, INVASION! courageously confronts our own stereotypes and prejudices with searing wit and bravado. Four actors in seven highly-charged, linguistically combative scenes, answer the question: Who is Abulkasem? Is he a romantic hero in a fairytale, annoying telemarketer, sleazy bar gigolo, famous female theater director, asylum-seeking apple picker, Muslim terrorist or your closeted gay Lebanese uncle?
“This destabilizing whirlwind of scenes promotes a fluidity inside the play in which no character can ever be fully ‘known,’” Crowded Fire artistic director explains in the play’s program. That’s precisely Khemiri’s point—identity cannot be reduced to simplistic constructions defined by stereotypes and amplified by language. We are more than the sum of our parts.
In the span of 80 minutes, the name Abulkasem becomes a noun, adjective, verb, insult and compliment—taking on a life of its own and serving as a metaphor for how language can be misunderstood, distorted and manipulated. “Your words can be used against you, no matter what you say,” Kemiri told The New York Times, “Even silence can be interpreted in a way that is in line with clichés.”
In one of the play’s most riveting scenes, an Arab-speaking apple picker discovers his words are being willfully misinterpreted by his translator, who takes his innocent ramblings about life in America and his love of Western music and distorts them into the soliloquy of a terrorist. Actor George Psarras, a non-Arabic speaker, with the assistance of language consultant Dolfakar Marden, deserves special recognition for mastering the Iraqi dialect like a native in this powerful scene.
But INVASION! is not a reductive diatribe on racism and identity politics - Khemiri also takes a jab at Orientalist apologists by including a character described as, “a white guy who wants to read every text from a post-colonial perspective and always, class after class, name-drops Frantz Fanon.”
Critically-acclaimed director Evren Odcikin also added local references to the script (originally translated from Swedish into English by Rachel Willson-Boyles) to give its San Francisco audience a greater sense of connection to the story—a very effective embellishment that cleverly exposes the ubiquity of bigotry.
Iranian-born visual artist Ali Dadgar and set designer Alexandra Friedman created a visually captivating set of wall-to-wall newspapers and graffiti that completely envelope the audience sitting in the theater’s 50-seat box car, lending an intimacy and immediacy to the performance. The effect is a gritty, urban atmosphere, lending itself perfectly to the play’s hip-hop-like semantic rhythms. “My installations consider the aesthetics of the printed page: image, texts, charts, columns, and grids—the structures that make newspapers, photographs, dictionaries, and maps comprehensible. Intervening within these displays and arrangements of information, I focus on the surface-ness of the page, editing as I pull the page apart, creating new texts as I resurface the walls,” Dadgar explains. “If print culture represents the accumulated knowledge of a civilized society, its alteration conjures new meanings, linking literacy and illiteracy, knowledge and ignorance, artistic freedom and censorship.”
Masterfully directed, skillfully acted and stylishly set, INVASION! is a linguistic smorgasbord that dares to question our deeply-held beliefs with aplomb, humor and intelligence. The play educates and illuminates without lecturing—a courageous and spirited piece of writing that asks us to re-examine our very own notions about race, identity and culture. Kudos to artistic director, Marissa Wolf, for boldly taking on a controversial and relevant production.
“Who is Abulkasem?” Khemiri asks, in the final scene. “Maybe Abulkasem is me? Maybe Abulkasem is you.”
Maybe we are all Abulkasem.
Crowded Fire Theater is staging INVASION! at the Boxcar Playhouse, 505 Natoma Street, San Francisco through September 29, 2012. For more information, visit www.crowdedfire.orgBy Farah Bullara, Aslan Media Contributing Writer
*Photo Credit: Courtesy of Crowded Fire Theater and Ali Dadgar
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