by Loren Noveck · February 8, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #46: Loren Noveck looks at I Call My Brothers, a production of the Play Co. There seem to be two, overlapping but not entirely congruent, ideas being explored in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s I Call My Brothers: it’s both an almost abstract philosophical meditation on what it means to lose one’s sense of self, to only see oneself mirrored in the eyes of others, and a more concrete, politicized, and emotionally charged immersion into what it feels like to be a member of a suspect class. Yet, bearing the traces of its translation from an essay in a Swedish newspaper (where it’s more clear that the “brothers” of the title are metaphors than it is in the play) to a novel to a play, from Swedish to English, and from the geographical and cultural particulars of the Swedish city Malmo to those of NYC, I Call My Brothers hasn’t entirely settled comfortably into its current form and place.
A car bomb has gone off near Times Square. Amor, a young Arab man who matches the description of the bombing suspects (Khemiri and his translator, Rachel Willson-Broyles, have a cleverly precise way of not quite saying the details of the profile while still making it crystal clear why Amor is anxious about it), has things to do: specifically, to try to return a broken drill-head to a hardware store and get it replaced, a task he can’t procrastinate any longer because his cousin is nagging him about it. He needs to be out and about in the city, with a drill in his backpack and his cell phone in his hand—but he’s also paralyzed by his anxiety, his terror, about interacting with the world on this day, at this moment, being who he is. It becomes impossible for him to tell whether he genuinely is the subject of enhanced scrutiny—not just from law enforcement but from customer service workers, people on the subway, passers-by. The play simply follows his day from point to point, from a morning hangover to his afternoon errands, without a lot of narrative drive.
The tricky thing—one of the tricky things—is that while it seems that Amor’s fear about being racially profiled and suspected is realistic, it’s also entirely possible that his paranoia and anxiety don’t come entirely from the circumstances: he has an obsessive temperament as a general rule (he’s been hung up on the same girl since they were both children, despite constant rejection; he’s memorized the periodic table and nicknames everyone of his acquaintance as an element). Though Damon Owlia keeps Amor’s ever-growing tension palpable the ambiguity, and the difficulty of separating Amor’s fantasies from his legitimate concerns, can be frustrating: sometimes they feel sometimes like an intentional challenge to the audience, but sometimes simply opaque.
The piece balances between the concrete and abstract, the literal and the metaphoric, paranoid fantasy and legitimate consciousness of danger. But it’s lodged so firmly inside Amor’s head and in his first-person narration of his own experiences that the other characters in the piece don’t really come to life: Amor’s hapless, naive friend Shavi, supportive but living in the bubble of his own simplicity; Amor’s tough, nagging cousin, Ahlem; his grandmother; Valeria, the object of his obsession; an unhelpful, even hostile hardware salesman; and a telemarketer for animal rights who won’t leave him alone.
Too, Erica Schmidt’s staging on Daniel Zimmerman’s stripped-down set (almost a mirror of the audience section of the theater, a visual representation of the play’s main theme that’s perhaps a bit too literal), while dynamic and clever, tilts the action toward the abstract rather than the concrete.
Still, I can’t stop thinking about one striking moment, narrated, as ever, through Amor’s eyes. After an unsuccessful encounter in a store, worked up to a fever pitch and seeing threats everywhere, he witnesses the interaction of another non-white man with the police as two things at once: both an innocent encounter and a threatening one, the police being both helpful and violent, the man both unjustly accused and potentially guilty. It becomes impossible for him, and therefore for us, to separate the two and parse the encounter in a simple way—and it gives a narrative form to Amor’s state of mind, in a way that doesn’t happen enough in the piece. The ideas underlying the play are so powerful, but they don’t feel fully realized in this form.