Stereotypes of a Dark-Skinned Man Are Confronted On Stage in Invasion!

Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri explains how his show at Silk Road Rising deals with the reality Muslim men face.

Courtesy of Silk Road Rising

Dan Johnson and Kamal Hans in Invasion

With Invasion!, the Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri bombards his audience with a barrage of poetry, dialogue, and shape-shifting characters. Linking Invasion!’s rapid-fire, interlocking vignettes is the name “Abulkasem,” a sort of magical moniker that represents a disparate variety of Muslim men and women ranging from an undocumented apple picker to a lauded Middle Eastern playwright.

Through the kaleidoscopic identities of Abulkasem, Khemiri makes a plea against racial profiling and stereotyping while vehemently underlining the power of language as a means of both perpetuating and fighting ignorance-based generalizations. 

Invasion! sparked something of an Internet firestorm last week, as Silk Road Rising Executive Director Jamil Khoury responded to the Sun-Times‘ politically-charged review of the piece.

Chicago caught up with Khemiri, 35, the son of a Swedish mother and a Tunisian father, while he was on a writing retreat in Sweden. He took a break to talk about his genre-defying writing style, the significance of Abulkasem, and why he hated theatre as a kid.     

There’s a scene in Invasion! where a group of talk-show “experts” are discussing Albulkasem’s biography. They throw out all kinds of superficial labels—terrorist among them—but it’s clear that nobody really knows anything about him. Why is your leading character so intentionally elusive?

There are so many stereotypes of dark-skinned men. And that’s one of the things I kept coming back to in this play, trying to investigate the cliched, superficial stereotype of the dark-skinned man. Growing up in Sweden, I can tell you that the media image of dark men bore no resemblance to any of the people I knew. I’m not going to describe those stereotypes—we all know what they are, we’re surrounded by them. Describing them would just be another way of underlining them, and I don’t want to do that. Throughout ‘Invasion,’ you see people trying to break free of cliches. Abulkasem is part of that, it’s like a magical word, a red thread that goes through the entire story. It’s something, or someone that’s impossible to capture. It’s a revolt against simplification.

At several points in the play, Abulkasem is portrayed as an undocumented apple picker. In one scene, he’s reciting ABBA lyrics, but his translator is reporting that he’s talking about planning a suicide bombing mission.

One thing that has been very present throughout my life is a fascination with the way that language can change people, or change your perception of people. How accents can be used against someone. I try to pack a lot of themes into my plays and novels, but they almost all deal with language and power and how language can be used to manipulate. I think that’s the most obvious in the scene with the interpreter. The audience tends to believe the interpreter—the person who is speaking their own language and that’s something I’ve long been interested in. How we, as a collective, are prone to believe the person who speaks our own language, who looks like us, and sounds like us.

There’s a meta-theatrical thread going through Invasion!, moments when the line between reality and theatricality becomes dizzyingly blurry. What’s the impetus behind that non-traditional structure?

You could say the play is constructed like a Russian (nesting) doll. There’s a version of truth within a version of truth inside another version of truth. I wanted to start with something that was very formal and historical and theatrical and move toward something stripped bare and raw and immediate. With the final monologue, I wanted to get away from props and costumes and tell the story solely with words. I think there is a huge amount of power in just the spoken word. A word can be basis for revolution.

In the very first scene, we meet two teenagers who absolutely hate theatre and actually threaten a bad actor with violence. Did you have a bad experience at a play when you were younger?

I’ve definitely been one of those kids. I’ve had many experiences sitting in the dark and feeling like I was trapped in a cage, longing to get out. And of course that goes back to both language and the way certain types of roles are portrayed.

Invasion! runs through Sept 1 at Silk Road Rising.

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