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A CurtainUp Review
I Call My Brothers
By Jacob Horn
Now, the English-language adaptation of I Call My Brothers, commissioned by PlayCo and written by Rachel Willson-Broyles, makes its debut at the New Ohio Theater with Erica Schmidt directing. The play's message about racism and its confounding effects on personal identity is an important one and is conveyed with conviction by the cast. The adaptation moves the play to New York from its original European context, however, creating some distracting implausibility.
This version of I Call My Brothers centers on Amor (Damon Owlia), an Arab-American, whom we follow for a period of 24 hours after a car bombing in Midtown West. He runs errands and has illuminating interactions with friends and strangers, all the while discussing how he fits into the world around him.
Amor remains a constant figure while the rest of the cast (Dahlia Azama, Francis Benhamou, and Rachid Sabitri) take on various peripheral roles. Owlia carries the bulk of the show gracefully, while Azama, Benhamou, and Sabitri make the most of their comparatively small opportunities to perform. It would have been nice to see more interaction among the cast, but that's not the kind of show this is.
In fact, the play feels more like a character sketch: we are always in Amor's head, and everything is mediated through his perspective. Interludes throughout also weave Khemiri's original newspaper treatise into the dialogue, aligning the protagonist and the playwright.
The playwright's perspective is informed by a different experience in Europe, however, than we would expect for this American Amor. "Racism" means something different in Sweden, where the Minister for Justice openly defended racial profiling, compared to the US, where discrimination may still be present but tends to be less overt. Amor's experiences are deeply attached to Khemiri's, but are diluted when the play is moved from Stockholm to New York.
An argument could be made that racism does indeed exist overtly in New York, even though we'd rather not admit it. But even if we are to say that the differences between the two cities are negligible when it comes to racial dynamics, the geographic transposition of the play still causes problems. If a car bombing occured in Midtown, it's impossible to imagine the city back to normal within a day. European nations and the US have a history of responding differently to incidents of terrorism. The unnecessary relocation of the story creates awkwardness that makes it more difficult to focus on the show's larger point.
As Amor narrates his experiences, the show regularly jumps through time and space, from internal to external, and from fantasy to reality. To an extent, these passages are supposed to be slippery, but the staging sometimes feels too chaotic, and deliberately confusing becomes excessively unclear. Jeff Croiter's lighting and Bart Fasbender's sound design helped counter this, providing clear-cut indications of changes between places and moments.
The rhetoric at the heart of I Call My Brothers is powerful, but at points along the line between Swedish newspaper article and American stage play, the message gets diluted. The play builds towards a crescendo that never comes, and the closing interaction between Amor and his friend Shavi doesn't seem to know where it's going. That confusion may be part of the point ("confused" might be a perfect descriptor for Amor at play's end), but it ultimately undercuts Khemiri's more compelling message.