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By John Quinn
Review enough theater and you develop a sense of deja vu. Ok, this show is “Invasion!” produced by Planet Ant Theatre, not “White People,” produced by Puzzle Piece Theater earlier this season. Its author is Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri, not American playwright J.T. Rodgers. It consists of vignettes performed by four actors, not monologues for three. It’s directed by Molly McMahon, not D.B. Schroeder. The productions, though share a disturbing similarity in theme and tone. They are broadly differing testaments to a festering boil on the body politic; call it prejudice, call it bigotry, call it racism, I’m calling it “Fear of the ‘Other.'”
“Invasion!” which premiered in 2006, was Khemiri’s first play. In the spirit of the old adage, “Write what you know,” his work reflects the suspicions, assumptions and prejudice he observed his Tunisian-born father endure in ethnically homogeneous Swedish society. While his own experiences seem less soul-killing – it would appear he inherited his mother’s Scandinavian skin – his mop of black hair would stand out in a crowd. “Invasion!” is a visceral experience, one, apparently, as equally moving in Rachel Wilson-Broyles brilliant translation as in Swedish. In 2011 Khemiri won an Obie Award for Playwriting. At that time, playwright David Henry Hwang, a member of the award committee, commented, “The world is very complicated and mongrelized, and this play is a beautiful expression of this.”
It is a beautifully crafted play, but it is beauty born from ugliness. And as performance scripts go, “Invasion!” is a tough nut to crack.
Part entertainment and part agitprop, it challenges both theatrical and societal conventions. Its scenes seem only connected by a name, “Abulkasem.” But when that name, garnered from an overly-emoted play, becomes the buzz-word of the day among high-school boys, its pervasiveness attracts the attention of the authorities. Its alien origin arouses suspicion of everything dark, sinister and Arabic.
“Invasion!” has a manic drive to it, well captured by Molly McMahon and her cast. But pay attention: With four actors in multiple roles, it is more difficult than usual to identify time, place and character. But it is more important that the troupe manages to corral Khemiri’s scattershot ideas into a unified whole.
The play begins rather light-heartedly with a massive breach in the theatrical fourth wall and vulgar enthusiasm characterized by Artun Kircali and Emilio Rodriguez. Youth are not afraid to twist language, and the characters’ adopt – and adapt – “Abulkasem” to mean everything from “def, dope, pfat, whack” to multiple f-bombs. This is just the set-up for a twisted misuse of language.
Samer Ajluni, picking apples on an expired visa, wants to use the wealth of his native tongue to express his love for America and pop music. Linnae Caurdy, his interpreter, warps his adulation of ABBA into multiple terrorist threats. The scene packs the punch of a bolt gun between the eyes. We are left to speculate about the interpreter’s motivation. Is it malice, or merely validation of her own prejudice?
“Invasion!” was not the last word from Jonas Hassen Khemiri on the dangers of racial profiling. In 2013, in response to the Swedish government’s implementation of Project Reva, he wrote an open letter to Minister of Justice Beatrice Ask. After its publication in Sweden’s biggest daily paper, “Dagens Nyheter,” it went viral on Facebook. In its own way, it’s as provocative as “Invasion!” His sentiments echo eerily the American experience of Arabs and Latinos alike. You might want to check it out. (CLICK HERE to to read Khemiri’s open letter: http://www.asymptotejournal.com/article.php?cat=Nonfiction&id=47
Planet Ant Theatre
2357 Caniff, Hamtramck
8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5, 12, 19
8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, 13, 20
2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 14
1 hour, 15 minutes; no intermission