‘Invasion!’ arrives at world’s divisive time

Chicago Sun Times

By Hedy Weiss Theater Critic - August 6, 2013

The global terror alerts dominating the news in recent days certainly do not help the arguments being made by Jonas Hassen Khemiri in his play, “Invasion!,” now in its Midwest debut by Silk Road Rising. Part satire, part agit-prop, part impassioned look at identity politics, Khemiri’s play (with an English translation by Rachel Wilson-Broyles), is a cry against Muslim profiling. But coming at the very moment the U.S. State Department found it necessary to issue a worldwide alert warning of planned attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia “by al-Qaeda or its affiliates,” a certain skepticism met those cries.

Khemiri, 35 — the son of a Tunisian father and Swedish mother — is a widely translated, award-winning novelist and playwright, who attracted much attention recently when, as part of a debate about racial profiling in Sweden, he wrote an open letter to that country’s Minister of Justice. And to be sure, his talent (verbal pyrotechnics, deftly delineated characters, sly humor) is palpable in this Chicago production that features sharply etched direction by Anna Bahow, and a bristling good cast of four capable of morphing on a dime. But despite Khemiri’s passion, those still thinking of the horrific terrorist attacks at the Boston Marathon might well be tempted to ask: What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?

In purely theatrical terms, the 90-minute “Invasion!” is full of punch. It also can be downright confusing as it mixes elaborate role-playing and dream sequences, all designed to suggest how “the Arab male” has long been perceived as a figure of fear.

Without divulging too much, “Invasion!, which is full of Midwestern references, begins as a fanciful exercise in tearing down the fourth wall, as two hip-hop-style high school boys disrupt a class trip to the theater where they are subjected to a very stiff and stylized drama about an aristocratic father opposed to his daughter’s attraction to a North African visitor.

From there, one of the teens recounts the story of Abulkasem, the beloved Lebanese uncle who worked as an exterminator, dreamed of being a disco dancer, visited the U.S. periodically, and clearly was a closeted gay man. His exotic name subsequently becomes the buzzword for everything male, Arab and somewhat suspect. The name also haunts the tragic story of an asylum seeker who languishes in hiding for years because of mistaken identity. And there is much more.

Kamal Hans brings a wonderful sense of Abulkasem’s zest for life to his portrayal, which renders the fate of the play’s victim all the more poignant. Amira Sabbagh shifts with great style from princess to edgy modern grad student. Glenn Stanton is the well-muscled class clown one moment and inept pickup artist the next. And understudy Omer Abbas Salem nailed the roles of fellow class clown and military man, replacing Dan Johnson, whose foot injury keeps him sidelined.

Polished, to be sure. But I still don’t buy it.

PDF of the print version of this review can be accessed HERE .