I Call My Brothers

by John Stoltenberg

Forum Theatre has a knack for picking trenchant works of theater that buzz with relevance to hot-button topics. Its current offering is a perfect case in point. Given this nation’s rising tide of Islamophobia in the turbulent wake of 9/11, Forum Theatre’s bold season opener, I Call My Brothers, could not be more timely or more urgent to be reckoned with.

The script is both expressionist fable and memory play. It takes us into the life and psyche of an Arab man named Amor in the aftermath of a suicide car bombing.  Amor had nothing to do with the crime; he’s completely innocent. A lone radical did it, someone who wore a keffiyeh. Yet because Amor fits the terrorist’s ethnic profile, he is instantly under citywide suspicion and at constant risk of racist reprisal.

At one point Amor’s friends spell out for him the desolating implications.

The goal is to blend in. The goal is to become invisible. Leave your keffiyeh at home. Do not carry a suspicious bag…. Smile at everyone and everything… Apologize for existing…  You are not safe anywhere…. Don’t attract anyone’s attention…

Time in the play is fractured. Scenes jump-cut. A structured tension in the text keeps every moment on edge.

In contrast to the crisis that has defined Amor’s world since the explosion that rocked it, we get glimpses in fragments of Amor’s everyday relational life: scenes with his best friend, his brothers, his cousin, the woman he’s enamored of who doesn’t love him back.

But the relationship that haunts him is the relationship between himself and the bomber. In one of the most profound and troubling moments of a play that is full of them, he says: “I’m not sure how much of it is in my head, you know?”

So distressed does Amor become that he loses hold on what’s real and what’s not. He may or may not be under surveillance; he may or may not know it. He tells of a poignant dream he had:

I started walking, I crossed streets, I squinted at the sun, I was an ordinary person, I didn’t stand out in any way, nobody saw me and thought I was a…

He doesn’t finish. He cannot speak the word by which he has been unspeakably otherized.

The play resounds with such immediacy, familiarity, contemporaneity, and psychological depth soundings that one might suppose it was written recently right here. But it was written in Sweden by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, an internationally renowned and award-winning playwright and novelist whose father is Tunisian and whose mother in Swedish. Khemiri did not invent the suicide car bombing. It happened in Stockholm in 2010.  Khemiri’s personal knowledge of its racial-profiling repercussions is the brutal basis of I Call My Brothers, and the source of the honesty at its heart.

Khemiri’s text as originally translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles has been seamlessly Americanized by Forum such that the play seems to echo the emotions of countless people of color who live similarly in fear here. And the spectacular Forum production directed by Artistic Director Michael Dove leaves no nerve unfrayed. Lighting Designer Max Doolittle, Sound Designer Justin Schmitz, and Projections Designer Hannah Marsh in particular have devised cunning and stunning effects.

Three of the four actors play multiple roles: Saleh Karaman as Amor’s best friend Shavi and others, Nora Achrati as Amor’s cousin Ahlem and others, and Sarah Corey as Amor’s love interest Valeria and others. There is evident chemistry among them, each a very personable presence we readily relate to. Karaman’s appealing performance as Shavi  in particular engaged the audience from his very first scene.

The role of Amor had to be recast midway into rehearsals when the original actor became unavailable, and though Ahmad Kamal had the part down cold on opening night—didn’t miss a beat—his presence was slightly less affecting than his castmates’.  For the play to work—for the drama in the character’s inner psychology to propel and focus the show—I needed to feel Amor’s performance more than I did. In a long monologue near the end, though,  Kamal brought forth a genuine charisma and force of personality that promised what’s surely to come during the run.

Audiences may differ in their experience of the plethora of special effects in the show—sudden shifts to amplification, line-by-line light cues, shocking flashes and crashes. Combined with the relative emotional remoteness in the portrayal of the central character, this could have an alienating effect (and not in a good Brechtian way).

And really, this is a play that wants no distance between us. This is a play whose emotional truths we need to feel even though they be not our own. Forum Theatre is to be commended for bringing I Call My Brothers to the Silver Spring Black Box and for demonstrating once again the indispensable power of theater to connect us internationally and close to home.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

I Call My Brothers plays through October 1, 2016 at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.

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