Swede Connection: Khemiri’s Invasion!
By Jerry Portwood
Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte in The Play Company's production of Jonas Hassen Khemiri's INVASION! at The Flea / Photo by Carol Rosegg
The English translation of Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s play Invasion! is so convincing—with hip-hop pacing (and references), witty repartee, and rapid-fire elocution—it’s almost impossible to believe it was not written with the United States in mind and New York City, specifically. But as Khemiri explained during a recent interview, he never intended the play to be translated.
“We are taking something old and making it new and creating our own ground through the use of hijacking words,” he said.
In fact, Invasion!, Khemiri’s first play, was written for the Stockholm City Theatre and was an instant sensation when it opened in 2006 and has since been produced in Germany, Norway, London, Austria, and France. Linguistically playful, with characters of mixed ethnicities and race, they blend humor with paranoia into a fresh and exhilarating experience. This American English translation was commissioned by The Play Company and was so popular during its initial run earlier this year it was brought back for another staging at The Flea (it closes tomorrow, October 1).
The lyrical piece of genre-busting theater contains an incredibly effective coups de théâtre that can’t be explained, only experienced. Focused around a mysterious character named Abulkasem, the play is rife with and peculiar-yet-familiar character types—like a flamboyant gay uncle named Lance who embraces his new homeland with panache—that seems perfectly suited to a contemporary American audience.
“I’m trying to find a balance between tragedy and humor,” Khemiri says. “I really enjoy working with humor because it can be a subversive tool.” As if to prove his point, when accepting a playwriting Obie award earlier this year in New York City, he joked that the award could be for “Best Swedish-Language Play Translated Into English in 2011 by a Non-Looking Swedish Guy With Girly Hair.”
Born and raised in Stockholm, 32-year-old Khemiri is the son of a Tunisian father and a Swedish mother (which could also explain why he’s a lanky six-foot-five). So far, he’s written two books—One Eye Red and Montecore—and half a dozen plays that have received positive critical responses.
Rachel Wilson-Broyles, the woman who translated Montecore into English (which was published by Knopf in March), was also commissioned by The Play Company to execute this translation of Invasion! A grad student at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wilson-Broyles says she never had any formal writing experience and she became the translator by accident, after but she’s taken to Khemiri’s use of language. "The things that he writes about are both very universal and specific to Sweden," she said.