Nothing is quite what it seems in Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion! If audiences at the Play Company’s production of this delightfully subversive comedy feel a tad uncomfortable during the performance, well, that’s how the playwright likes it. Produced by the Play Company, which focuses on a global program of adventurous new plays, Invasion! received its American debut last winter, garnering for Khemiri a 2011 Village Voice OBIE award for playwriting. A remount of the PlayCo production is currently playing at the Flea Theater in Tribeca.
Prior to Invasion!, Khemiri, a Stockholm native of Tunisian and Swedish parentage, was best known as a prose writer, acclaimed in Sweden for his first novel, One Eye Red in 2003. He received a prize for best Swedish novel for his next book, published in the United States this year under the title Montecore: The Silence of the Tiger. The novel is an inventive linguistic balancing act which relates the story of the life of a Tunisian immigrant in Sweden from frequently contradictory perspectives.
Shifting perspectives and a duplicity of language are also the hallmarks of Invasion!, which marked Khemiri’s debut as a playwright. In Khemiri’s play, a single word—“Abulkasem”—keeps morphing and changing its meaning, in the process moving some characters forward while ensnaring others in an all too familiar net of fear and paranoia. In seven fast-paced scenes, expertly calibrated by director Erica Schmidt, a versatile cast of four (Francis Benhamou, Nick Choksi, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte, and Bobby Moreno) tackle 19 different roles, change personalities and ethnicity on a dime, and always keep the audience on edge. Aided by a deft English translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Invasion! stays funny and playful while touching on contemporary politically charged issues that are anything but light-hearted. We spoke recently with the 32-year-old playwright, who was in New York to attend the remount of Invasion!, which opened a few days after the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
What made you start writing plays?
I had thought about writing for the theater for quite some time, but because my brother is an actor, I had always thought that was my brother’s domain. But then I was asked by the Stockholm City Theatre whether I wanted to write a play. I had some themes that I had been trying to write about in prose which hadn’t really worked, so I thought maybe I can take those essays and see what happens if I think about them as a theatrical event. Invasion! and [the novel] Montecore both had starting points when I was in a residency called Ledig House, in Hudson, upstate New York. Since then I have had a much easier time writing plays. I enjoy myself—it is playful actually—maybe because I don’t see it as my work. My fourth play is opening soon and there is a fifth one coming as well.
What were those themes you were able to address better in a play than in a novel?
I had long thought about this concept of a magical name. In the prose that I had written before, one of the themes that keep coming back is how language can be used as some kind of mask. Something that can be used almost like a tool—maybe not to break, but to visualize power structures. It’s a way that you can go into one identity through the use of a language and then how you can use your words to hide yourself. I think that was the starting point of Invasion! “Abulkasem” turns into something that is incapturable—if that’s a word in English. Maybe that’s a link between Invasion! and with what happens in Montecore, which is a story of two people trying to tell the true version of the missing father’s life and never really succeeding—the father is something fleeting and something impossible to catch. When I was working on Invasion! I remember thinking that I kind of enjoyed the idea that I can actually trap [the audience]. When you write prose there is always this non-spoken fear that people will leave; they have the power to leave in and out. It makes me sound like a strange dictator, but, you know, that idea—to hold them captive—and in the end hopefully they will get something.
Invasion! is very inventive as a work of theater. Did you consciously try to play with the theatrical form itself?
I experience a great sense of tiredness when I go to the theater and feel like I can see this at home. I really love to be in the theater where I feel there is no other form where I can experience this better. So I love to see a play that it would be very hard to make a movie out of. Going into different roles is something that I like to use and maximize in the theater. Some actors don’t really like to work with my plays because they need a dramatic curve, a starting point here and an ending point there. I need actors who enjoy the split second of going into one character, saying three lines and then leaving that character. My last play had four actors playing 36 roles. To me that is very natural. For instance, I go into one role when I am talking to you, and when I go out and talk to someone else I enter another role—the way that we as people do continuously throughout the day.
Given that our experience of Invasion! comes through a language that you didn’t actually write the play in, can you comment on the English translation by Rachel Willson-Broyles?
That is just another level of the impossibility of communicating, because I would be no one without my translator. It was just a coincidence, one of those strange, amazing things. I was in Madison doing a lecture at the University of Wisconsin and I was handed this translation from Montecore that a student had done for a class. We had had a number of different translators trying to find the voice of Kadir [one of the narrators] in Montecore and not succeeding. I got these two pages and it just felt like she got it—the balance between humor and seriousness, between readability and crookedness, and a certain sense of rhythm. I felt his voice. So we asked her to do a test translation for us. And that was just so much better than anything we had seen before so we commissioned her to do the English translation of Montecore. And then she was commissioned by the Play Company to do a version of Invasion! They had originally discovered the play in its German version and there was also a British translation for a production that was done in London. Playco has been very good at not just settling with a translation. The focus that they had on the text has been very important. I’ve never been invited before to do a five-day workshop with a translator. I don’t think I have ever worked with a company that has been so meticulous.
Although this is probably not the case, it feels like you were writing play that related to 9/11.
I never thought specifically about 9/11, but I think that a lot of people have invested a lot of political baggage into describing the world post-9/11 as black and white, or even trying to make sense of the world in very simplistic ways. It wasn’t until I sat there during the first run of the play in Tribeca that I realized we are actually playing this in the shadow of the World Trade Center. There was a certain desperation in some of the laughter that I really liked—especially in the interpreter scene. That laughter came from a very dark place. The one thing that we did was to choose examples of asylum cases which are real American cases. When we did the first readings of the play it was just set in Sweden so it was easier for people to shrug it off. They were just, like, that’s weird there is fear of outsiders in Sweden also. It didn’t hit home.
You mention the interpreter scene: Can you explain that further?
I thought it would be interesting to write something about this image of the Muslim male because, at least in the media, that image has been very one-dimensional. So in the interpreter scene where this Muslim man tells his story, at the point when he says that he hates the country that he has ended up in, the interpreter starts lying. She just fills him with all these racist clichés about Muslim men. There is one point—I am quite happy when that works—the moment he stops talking. She looks at him as if he is speaking and then goes on filling him with all these clichés. There is something in that moment—the feeling that even if I’m quiet, they will keep filling me with this stupidity. So, of course there is that question: Is it worth speaking, to try to break myself out of these structures, or is silence the only way out? I think in that scene what I am trying to say is that I definitely believe in words, even though words can be misinterpreted. Silence is not a way out. I tried silence instead of writing. I wrote a lot, but I was very private, being extremely scared of how it could be viewed or how it could be possibly misinterpreted. It was a great sense of freedom when I realized that it will always get misinterpreted.
You write about immigrants and outsiders—can we assume this comes from your own experience in Sweden?
In my plays the supposed outsider is very rarely an outsider, only someone who is being viewed as an outsider. Having been born and grown up in Sweden and maybe not looking like a typical Swede, I think that made me interested in how groups are formed. It is also important to remember that there are a number of collectives that I am supposed to feel at home in but that I don’t—be it a leftish, intellectual setting, a collective masculinity, or a Swedishness, whatever that means. I cannot tell the story of the immigrant. Hopefully what I’m doing is trying to tell stories about how these group identities are formed. I grew up in a country which from the outside often is viewed as being paradise. But of course it is a country like all others, even though a lot of Swedes would object to that. We also have problems of racism, of homophobia and those kinds of issues. I think what makes it interesting for me to write about this national identity is because it is so full of non-outspoken self-righteousness.
Would you say this is because Sweden was accustomed to being a homogenous society until people like you came along?
That’s one way of looking at it. I totally agree with you in one sense because there is a history where it was easier to see who [was who], but we also have a very long history of finding supposed non-group members, be it gypsies, be it Catholics. A lot of the old theories of cleansing, proper genes, and so on; we were there before Nazi Germany in that respect.
You mentioned a new play that’s opening in Sweden shortly. What’s it about?
The new one is called Apathy for Beginners and it opens this month at the Folkteatern in Gothenberg, which is the theater of one of our great Swedish playwrights Lars Norén. After that it will open in Stockholm and also tour. In the last couple of years we’ve had a growing scandal in Sweden where a number of children of refugees have become apathetic. They have just been molded down by the insecurity of the asylum system to the point that they don’t speak, can’t control their bladders, they can’t eat and they just basically die. It’s a very scary phenomenon. Very quickly there were a lot of weird rumors surrounding this—that they were actually faking, that they were being injected with drugs by the parents. So the play is actually a kind of comedy about apathetic refuges or something that wants to show how the creation of the rumors were used to establish a self-image. At first we believe that it is actually the parent’s fault, that they injected their kids, then in the next scene we realize that it is the people who work for the government, or it was the politicians who are manipulating these rumors. The guilt for who caused this is moved around—a little bit like “Abulkasem.” In a way the play deals with some of the issues that came up with Invasion!—how a sense of us is being created. The young people in Invasion! grow with that magical name “Abulkasem” and become something bigger and the older generation sees the idea as something of a threat, something that is going to get them.