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THEATER | Jennifer Jajeh on "I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You"
It wouldn't be the least bit surprising if the FBI were already keeping tabs on Bedlam Theatre, what with shows like To Shining Sea... and other audacious challenges to unquestioning allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it supposedly stands. It's practically a certainty, now, with the upcoming production of I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You. Imported from San Francisco, where it enjoyed a three-month run, I Heart Hamas promises to test just how open-minded, in fact, the Twin Cities, lauded bastions of forward thinking, actually are.
Authored and performed by accomplished upstart Jennifer Jajeh, I Heart Hamas is what she calls "a tragicomic one-woman theater show about my experiences as a Palestinian American and my decision to move to Ramallah in 2000. I take the [audience] on a surreal journey to auditions, the Ramallah convention circa 1986, on dates with Jewish boys, and then to Palestine as I navigate the complex web of identities, assumptions, and stereotypes about Palestinians in an increasing polarized world of East vs. West." Quite a mouthful. If that's not enough, she adds, "It also presents a realistic view of my experiences living in Ramallah under occupation. I created the show because I wanted to let people know what it was like being a Palestinian-American in today's world."
A tried and true tenet of theater goes: If you want to send a message, use Western Union. The stage is a place for conveying truths, not standing on a soapbox. Which is all the more reason Jajeh and her controversial creation had better come with the bona fide theatrical goods. Not a problem, according to veteran director W. Kamau Bell, who runs San Francisco's Solo Performance Workshop. "When a legitimately talented actor like Jennifer shows up with such a compelling story," Bell reflects, "it makes the work of crafting the story much easier. She knows how to captivate an audience. Jennifer is an instinctual writer, and does an impressive job of creating the type of balance of tone and a dramatic arc that a full-length solo show needs." So there.
Jennifer Jajeh received her actor's training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Conservatory (NYC) and the American Conservatory Theatre (San Franciso). She has worked as an independent film director and producer, a film programmer and an arts administrator in places including Prague and Palestine. Her two films, In My Own Skin and Fruition, have screened on PBS, at MOMA and Anthology Film Archives in New York, and in dozens of national and international film festivals, museums, art galleries, and universities. I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid To Tell You premiered at New York's International Fringe Festival in 2008 before taking San Francisco by storm. It goes from here to Chicago for a March-April run. After that, God alone knows, but look for this author-actor to carve out a national name of great consequence before long. She answered my questions via e-mail.
You are crazy, courageous, or a combination of the two. At any rate, congratulations on the success of I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You. What, exactly, prompted you to create it?
Honestly, I created the show out of a sense of necessity. I'd been working as an actor for a number of years and had started to feel really disconnected from the work I was doing. I realized I needed to be engaged in a project that reflected issues that were vital and exciting to me, or to find another profession. So I started writing and knew pretty immediately I wanted to create a piece about my identity, what it felt like being me: a Palestinian-American woman in today's world. Both the biases I deal with and the ridiculous, often humorous situations that result from carrying such a loaded identity. Plus, after spending a year and a half living in Ramallah at the start of the Second Intifada, I really wanted to portray the arresting reality of what's happening on the ground there. It was important for me to present my experiences honestly, revealing both the funny and not so funny facets of being from a place that is so reported on in the media, yet so grossly misrepresented.
What is most satisfying about having created the piece?
The audience response has been the best part of this whole ride. I never imagined that people from all walks of life would be able to relate to the show and have such a profound reaction to hearing my story. It really resonates not only with people connected to the issue of Palestine, but also to those who feel like outsiders or just feel misunderstood or vilified in some way. And that's been very exciting. Plus, I've been telling people for years that I'm really funny, and I finally feel vindicated.
What does W. Kamau Bell bring to the production that another director wouldn't?
W. Kamau Bell is not only the show's director: I developed the piece in his solo performance workshops. He's an amazing comedic talent and a well-regarded solo performer and stand-up comedian. He really helped me find a lot of the humor in the piece, but he also has a gift for figuring out where the heart of the story lies. He really pushed me to go deeper.
Do you feel at all disadvantaged by not being able to see this work from the audience?
Not really. Sometimes I wonder what it looks like from the outside, but I'd prefer being on this end of it.
Have you had your solo work performed by other actors?
No. The show is intensely personal; everything in it is based on actual things that have happened to me. It's such an intimate examination of my identity and experiences that I'd find it hard to watch anyone else perform it.
Why Bedlam Theatre?
Bedlam has a history of presenting cutting-edge, challenging work to its audiences, so it felt like a really good fit for the show. Plus, the way they've cultivated a community around the space appealed to me. The team at Bedlam has been nothing short of amazing to work with, and extremely supportive of the show.
Jennifer Jajeh's I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You is at Bedam Theatre, Thursday-Sunday, February 18-21 and 25-28, 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun., with artist talkbacks following Sunday performances. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at bedlamtheatre.org.
©2010 Dwight Hobbes