“I call my brothers” is in no way a threatening statement. I do call my brothers, in fact, it’s nice to keep in touch. But if a man of apparently Arab ethnicity, perhaps wearing a keffiyeh, utters the same anodyne statement, it might set off some alarms. The reasons why and the double entendre of that phrase are at the heart of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play I Call My Brothers, and it’s vigorous, no-frills production by The Play Company under the direction of Erica Schmidt.
Khemiri is from Stockholm via Tunisia but New York audiences may remember his first play, Invasion!, which won an Obie for playwriting in 2010, when PlayCo commissioned a translation of the text from Khemiri’s native Swedish (by Rachel Willson-Broyles). The success of that work lies with Khemiri’s keen reading of modern society, serious reflection on immigrant identities in these and irreverent treatment of both. I Call My Brothers takes up the same concerns; it imagines a day in the life of Amor, a college student with an unusual fascination for the Periodic Table of the Elements, beginning the morning after a car bombing in Times Square. That he is Arab or a Muslim is never mentioned and actor Damon Owlia’s clothes and speech could place him anywhere in the US. It is obvious, however, from the knee-jerk reactions of Amor’s friends and family that these born and raised New Yorkers are also members, “brothers,” of a certain ethnic group and that the bombing will reverberate on all of them at the degree to which they resemble the still un-apprehended, suspects. So they hope against hope the terrorists aren’t, well, you know…
As in Invasion!, so also in I Call My Brothers, Khemiri puts his finger firmly on the unspeakable: racism and fear of the Other in a post 9/11 world. With Brothers, however, he moves his sights from the societies that generate these fears, in Europe and North America, to the objectified individuals internalizing them. When Amor steps out of his apartment building that morning, he believes that he blends in with the Sunday crowds and tourists in Midtown, his jeans and hoodie erasing all suspicion from his thick beard and jet black ponytail. But he is followed almost immediately by an undercover detective, who relays his every move to a command center… Or is he?
A spooked sprint ensues through a megalopolis of security cameras and menacing cops, vividly developed through Khemiri’s incantatory pacing and sometimes lyrical flights. These offer clues that the narrative is descending precipitously into the young man’s panicked psyche, whose forces are teased out through a series of flashbacks allowing Owlia’s trio of companions on stage (Rachid Sabitri, Dahlia Azama and Francis Benhamou) to flesh out Amor’s past: his best friend, his unrequited love interest, his cousin, his grandmother. As anchored as he is by these relationships, he cannot shake his worst, repressed trepidations: that he could be wrongfully arrested, that he could be a victim of his race, that he could even be the bomber himself. When he calls his brothers, is he, in fact, calling his “brothers”?
One understands implicitly that Khemiri writes from experience as a dual culture, half-Tunisian Swede, growing up speaking Arabic against a milky-white cultural smorgasbord of Abba, Strindberg, and Saint Lucia. If Brothers takes place in New York City, rather than Stockholm, it’s an ironic jab: even in the most cosmopolitan city in the world, it is apparently still possible to pick out an Arab terrorist from a city block away.
PlayCo’s production does sober justice to Khemiri’s text. Daniel Zimmerman’s set, which is a mirror image of the theater seating where the audience is placed, asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of these “other” New Yorkers, but it lends scant emphasis to Khemiri’s text, and can even be a distraction, forcing the cast to pile up chairs to carve out the spaces of Amor’s wanderings. Schmidt’s firm direction elicits intense performances from the cast in their various roles, and Owlia is alternately jocular and edgy to persuasively capture the conflicted, attention-starved Amor.
On the night I attended, the New Ohio Theater was almost empty after a daylong snowstorm and Super Bowl revelries, but Khemiri’s text and this cast’s evident commitment to it deserve greater attention. If we think we live in a post-racial society, we need only to consider the violent backlash to Coca-Cola’s multilingual, multicultural vision of America at Super Bowl half-time. Khemiri challenges us to think again about the ways we still perceive ethnic “others” in this country. So call your “brothers” or your homies or whoever you hang with and give this show a look.