Author: Jonas Hassen Khemiri
At: Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N. Ridge Ave. Tickets: 312-219-4140 or InterrobangTheatre.org; $16-$32. Runs through: Feb. 2
The Chicago premiere of Jonas Hassen Khemiri's ( and translator Rachel Willson-Broyles' ) I Call My Brothers feels like it's offering up a shared history of injustice dished out to communities of color when unexplained violence rocks European cities.
But this exploration of recent bombings in Sweden, and the Arab residents who are ready to be assumed guilty by authorities, does something different. It teases us with a bit of didactic direct address, then settles quickly on one man's journey to to unearth himself from the societal mantle of 'dangerous', and his unspoken worry that he will become a victim of his own anxiety.
Director Abhi Shrestha and Interrobang Theatre let viewers in on a characters' internal world, which seems grounded at first, but who among us can stay happy in the face of loneliness and failure for long? Instead we're pulled into the sand draining from under the feet of a man who needs someone to assure him he is not a burdensome lost cause.
When explosions rock Stockholm, and Arab communities brace for even more bigotry and scrutiny than usual, we meet Amor ( Salar Ardebili ); a man who'd rather not let on just how close he's been to the brink of meltdown, even before police and heightened surveillance came into the picture. He's stuck reaching out to his family ( Tina El Gamal ), Valeria ( Gloria Imseih Petrell ), who keeps her distance from his obsessive tendencies, and Shavi ( Chris Khoshaba ) who is so available and selfless, Amor would rather be alone. Amor imagines himself to be so reviled among his circle, that the idea of a radicalized Arabic outsider starts to manifest in his brain, as he wonders aloud, into his cell phone if he'd be capable of the same violence that rocked his city the day before.
Director Abhi Shrestha embraces a lo-fi staging, with actors keeping each other awash in the glow of neon light sticks, recording their own reverb, or combing through a forest of glittering mylar headscarves. As Shavi, Chris Khoshaba is a non-stop beam of sunshine and energy that is a perfect counter to Amor's propensity to shrink to nothing. Gloria Imseih Petrelli brings that same brightness to Valeria, with equal parts sardonic disdain. And Tina El Gamal bounds all over the playing field as no-nonsense cousins, ominous surveillance operatives, and Amor's feisty grandmother. They are all made more poignant by Salar Ardebili, who can't help but suffocate from the power of his own thoughts, as Amor.
Anyone who suffers from anxiety or panic attacks will recognize the impossibility of Amor's simple exchanges, and his chest-constricting breaths. Anyone who who supports a loved one with anxiety will feel the powerlessness that comes from trying to help battle that panic.