Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s Invasion! begins with a metatheatrical interruption. A group of students are on a school trip to see Signora Luna, a Swedish play written in 1835 by Carl Jonas Love Almquist. After the students sit through a few minutes of the play’s Orientalizing verse (“Italy’s soil must remember the Arab’s name”), two unruly students jump to their feet and begin to heckle the actors.
In Drama-Wallah’s production of Invasion! (translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles), the opening scene is staged in a fantastically explosive way. The two interrupting students, played by Aman Soni and Gopal Divan, begin performing before the play starts by sitting in house seats and talking with audience members. When I saw Invasion! at the Access Theater as part of New York’s South Asian International Performing Arts Festival (SAIPAF), Soni sat in front of me as Arvind, a student who punctuated his phrases with “bro” and chatted animatedly about his Indian name. “People can’t pronounce it,” he lamented, “They always say ‘A-vid.’”
Sustained interaction between performers and audience can feel gimmicky, but in this case, Soni and Divan pull off the dynamic with charisma. By the time they jump up from their house seats, they’ve proven their comedic chops and they usurp the stage with energetic profanity. “Who owns the show now, bitches?” Arvind interrupts the other actors, indignant. “Who’s Shakespeare?”
This sense of interruption pervades Khemiri’s play. Scenes blend into one another and the actors rapidly switch between characters. For a play that tackles themes like Orientalism and imperialism, character shifting is a powerful motif because it conveys the porosity of boundaries between identities of oppressed and oppressor. In a striking scene, three talking heads in a terrorism-related expert panel quickly transform into silent figures in a criminal line-up.
The breakneck pace of Invasion! makes difficult work for its actors, especially since there are only four: Aman Soni, Mahima Saigal, Jackson Goldberg, and Gopal Divan. All of them rise to the challenge, though, acting with a specificity that anchors the narrative. Each has one role in which they shine most. Soni is hilarious as the hapless, desperate-to-impress Arvind. Saigal is fiery as a Kurdish student whose white classmates impose all-too-familiar “tragic brown girl” narratives onto her life. Goldberg is gut-wrenching as an Arabic-speaking laborer accused of terrorism. Finally, Divan is virtuosic and difficult to watch as a young boy recounting a traumatic experience in the play’s closing monologue.
Drama-Wallah director, Hafiz Karmali, says Divan’s monologue posed some difficult directorial choices. He and Divan pored over the scene together and decided it should be delivered not with open eyes but with half-closed eyelids, in simulation of a nightmarish trance. Karmali interprets the monologue as a “post-script” to Invasion! that traces the play’s foundational source of trauma, the impetus that led to Khemiri’s writing. This discussion between actor and director clearly paid off; Divan received the SAIPAF award for Best Actor, and Karmali received the award for Best Director.
The cast of Invasion! also received another prestigious SAIPAF accolade — the award for Best Ensemble. This prize marks a promising start for Drama-Wallah, especially in its time as a newly formed company. Soni and Karmali are Drama-Wallah’s two founding members. The other cast members of Invasion! are contributing actors, as are the cast members of the 2015 SAIPAF production of Rabindranath Tagore’s Post Office, which Karmali also directed.
Drama-Wallah, according to Soni, is a group of international artists who “present a wide range of plays from the global theater landscape.” The name, of course, plays off the Hindustani suffix “-wallah,” which refers to someone who specializes in a specific activity — in this case, drama. “A popular chai wallah,” Soni says, “continues to experiment, making new recipes and evolving the taste of his chai. Just like him, Drama-Wallah endeavors to use constant experimentation of aesthetics and style.”
In keeping with this ethos, Soni carefully clarifies that Drama-Wallah is not solely a South Asian group. “We don’t want to be stuck doing only South Asian work,” he says. “It is true we started this way, and most of the actors are currently from India. But we aim to be much more cosmopolitan in nature.”
I understand his reasoning. Especially in theater, where people of color are so often typecast or excluded, it may understandably feel stifling to limit Drama-Wallah’s scope. At the same time, one of my favorite parts of Drama-Wallah’s SAIPAF production was its specific South Asian resonance. Although contemporary forms of imperialism and xenophobia are pressing forces performed by and upon South Asian communities, I rarely see them addressed in spaces designated for desi cultural expression.
Political issues, perhaps because they can be divisive, are often skirted in festivals like SAIPAF; instead, South Asia is often conveyed as a static entity independent of politics and devoid of controversy. Vijay Prashad describes the pressures of multiculturalism and its need for cultures to be portrayed as “governed by particular social rules…that are timeless and immutable.” This flattening of ethnic identity marginalizes any complex discussion of issues that affect and divide our communities, among them Islamophobia, imperialism, and international points of solidarity. Drama-Wallah’s production of Invasion! at SAIPAF, however, raises many questions that emerge from such thorny political issues. The performance, to me, felt like a vital assertion that contemporary forms of imperialism, Islamophobia and xenophobia are a crucial part of today’s South Asian cultural worlds.
If you missed the chance to see this production at SAIPAF, you luckily have another chance to see it soon. The same cast will be performing a ten-show run at the Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival. The performances will run from August 30 to September 10. To those invested in South Asian artistic expression, or to those simply in search of quality theater, this production and this new company are worthy of attention.
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Aria Thaker is a writer from New Jersey. She can be found on Twitter at @ariathak.
Invasion! will be performed August 30-September 10 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue in New York, NY. For more information and to buy tickets online, visit http://www.dreamupfestival.org/SHOW15-06-Invasion.html.