The setting: an officially “nonexistent” facility for the holding and interrogation of suspected Islamic terrorists, located somewhere on American soil. The central character: Ahmed (James Asher), son of Islamic Egyptian émigrés and translator/interrogator at this place. His struggle: to convince Arabic-speaking coworker Nasser (William Dao), African American boss Kevin (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) and self that his loyalties and identity lie with America.
Oh, right, and the dramatic device: who should arrive as prisoner, subject to Ahmed’s interrogation tactics, but Ahmed’s own father, Samir (Terry Lamb). Talk about embarrassing.
While this sounds heavy – like, Guantanamo atrocities heavy (the play was inspired by the story of Captain James Yee, a Muslim army chaplain who, in his counseling of prisoners at Guantanamo, came to be suspected as a sympathizer himself and was imprisoned there for 76 days, eventually to be exonerated and given a book deal) – the tone of Yussef el Guindi’s acclaimed play Language Rooms is, for the most part, actually absurdly humorous.
The set doesn’t look like a Gitmo so much as an office break room, albeit with slightly unusual contents – baseball bats, dildos, an sensory deprivation chamber, milk (for use against lactose intolerant prisoners, which, apparently, make up a curiously high percentage of the lot). Fittingly, if somewhat unappealingly, the play has been billed as “‘The Office’ meets ’24’ meets ‘Brazil’.”
It soon becomes clear that Ahmed is himself subject to a kind of interrogation, analogous to the one he is employed to practice. Why doesn’t he shower with the rest of his colleagues? Why did he skip out on Superbowl festivities? People, like Kevin, have begun to wonder. Ahmed maintains that he is simply shy and doesn’t care for sports, but to no avail. As Nasser reminds him, “the language itself puts us in enemy territory.”
Ahmed’s ongoing interrogation unfolds through a progression of surreal interactions, most of which owe their hilarity to Abdul-Rashid’s performance of the maddeningly even-tempered, ostensibly gentle and open-minded Kevin (he at one point proposes “sensitivity exercises” to improve morale, such as naming 5 things you like about each person you interrogate). In one scene, Ahmed convinces himself that stripping in front of his boss will exonerate him from suspicion. The encounter ends with both parties conversing while wearing red clown noses – interrogation tools, apparently, sent by HQ without instruction.
The implication here is fairly clear: for people of Muslim descent living in post-9/11 America, everyday life is a kind of implicit, ongoing interrogation. These perceived enemies must jump through a never-ending parade of ridiculous hoops in order to prove ownership of a suitable identity that has been postulated by the dominant culture, but not defined. “I’m authentic,” protests Ahmed. “You can’t say that,” responds Kevin. “We haven’t determined what it means yet.”
Thought provoking as this quandary is, Language Rooms‘ more compelling half is its second one, in which, confronted with the ignominious arrival of father Samir, Ahmed’s complex and hideous state of cognitive dissonance – what drives him to torture dubiously indicted people like his father, in the name of a country in which he has never felt at home – comes to light.
The stage for this encounter is set by Samir’s two Act 1 monologues, in which he tells the story of his family’s immigration to the U.S. It is worth noting that this inverts the usual, child-told narrative style of the American immigrant-story, in effect rendering Samir an uncommonly three-dimensional presence.
With Lamb giving what is easily the Evren Odcikin-directed production’s most riveting performance, Samir stands stripped-naked before his interrogator, Ahmed, forcing his son to confront the thoroughly suppressed motivations that drove him to his unenviable line of work, in this place that is both technically American and officially “nonexistent.” Namely, a deep-seated sense of cultural homelessness takes form (dad is made to bear some of the guilt, for having embarrassed a young Ahmed with his unapologetically thick, foreigner-accent, while simultaneously refusing to teach him Arabic in hopes of making an American of him), along with all the fear, self-loathing and rage that have accompanied it.
In another divergence from the standard immigrant-story tale, Language Rooms ends with an unsettling terminus that could hardly be called a conclusion: Ahmed, willingly encased in a sensory-deprivation “reflection chamber,” is left to now literally conduct what has in a sense always been a self-interrogation. Samir stands beside, separated from his imprisoned son by thick glass. “The price for a better life,” as he noted earlier in the play, “it is always a little higher than you think it will be.”