Playwright: Jonas Hassen Khemiri; Translator: Rachel Willson-Broyles. At: Silk Road Rising at The Historic Chicago Temple Building, 77 W. Washington St. Tickets: 312-857-1234, ext. 201, or www.silkroadrising.org; $35. Runs through: Sept. 1
Silk Road Rising poster artist Andrew Skwish certainly created an apt illustration for the full-scale Chicago premiere of Jonas Hassen Khemiri's Obie Award-winning play Invasion! It's a Rubik's Cube featuring styled images of people who could be Arab, South Asian, Persian and more.
Skwish's multi-peopled image also matches the writing style of Khemiri, a novelist and playwright of Swedish and Moroccan heritage, who offers up plenty of uncomfortable situations and incidents around Western prejudice and perceptions toward Arab or Middle Eastern people in Invasion!
So don't go expecting a linear plot for Invasion! (although some characters reemerge in others' stories as the play progresses). What Khemiri and his translator Rachel Willson-Broyles present are an intermission-less series of fragmentary sketches and scenes that riff on how Middle Eastern or Arab people cope with immigrant assimilation, being labeled as "exotic" and their fears of being racially profiled as dangerous. And throughout much of the play, many people bring up the name Abulkasem, which goes through a wild array of uses and interpretations.
Khemiri definitely enjoys pushing emotional buttons, which provides a lot of fodder for director Anna C. Bahow and her cast of four actors to dramatize on stage. Each actor takes on multiple roles, and you'll soon see why they aren't given names (or headshots, for that matter) in the program.
At the opening performance, Omer Abbas Salem had taken over the roles usually played by Dan Johnson, who was dealing with a foot injury. But Salem fit right in alongside Kamal Hans, Glenn Stanton and Amira Sabbaghall clearly relishing the chance to give voice to such a wide array of people who often get instantly labeled or written off with suspicion.
There's a likely gay uncle from Lebanon, condescending continuing education student colleagues and even an imagined interpreter who twists what is being said into pure terrorist speak to frighten Americans.
The stylistic diversity and ideas in Invasion! certainly prod a lot of thinking but, as a piece of drama, Invasion! can leave you wanting. It's like Khemiri is throwing all sorts of ideas and viewpoints things out there and is just leaving it up to audiences to decide what sticks or rings true. This makes Invasion! come off as a short-attention span jumble that is deliberately dizzying and will make you work to form the play coherence in your head.
Silk Road Rising certainly deserves praise for tackling such a challenging work and performing it so well. Just be sure to leave your expectations for something linear at the door.