By Charles Brousse
I’m sure there will be potential theatergoers who will be put off by the title of Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s Autobiography of a Terrorist. The play is receiving a lively world premiere on San Francisco’s Potrero Stage, courtesy of Golden Thread Productions, a Bay Area company that specializes in Middle Eastern-themed events. Some may anticipate a stomach-churning account of how an ordinary individual may, for whatever reason (real or perceived), turn against the country that nurtured him and become a bomb-throwing monster. Others may not want to subject themselves to an all too familiar diatribe against the sins committed by the U.S. against weaker nations around the world—actions that, for those injured, make violence a justifiable response. In both cases, one might expect plenty of blood to be on the wall. On a nice spring night, who needs that?
Relax everybody—Autobiography is a comedy! Yes, you read that right. Its author’s proclaimed intent is to give people reasons to laugh as he uses satire to explore the absurdities that surround this country’s “War on Terror,” a conflict which, at the rate it’s going, may ultimately surpass Europe’s Hundred Years War in duration. No bombs or blood. Just a provocative (and amusing) account of what it meant to be a “hyphenated American”—particularly one named Saïd Sayrafiezadeh—during a historical period that included the 1979-81 Iranian Hostage Crisis and the September 11, 2001 takedown of Manhattan’s World Trade Center by a disparate group of real terrorists from Muslim-dominated states.
While both were ground-shaking events, they are essentially background to the main story, which is: If you’re an American citizen, born and raised in this country, but have a name or color that betrays the fact that your parents are from somewhere currently in disfavor, how do you deal with events in the “old country,” and the impact that they have on the way more established Americans view you?
“Saïd” (from here on in, I’ll refer to the author by first name only, to avoid misspelling Sayrafiezadeh, and because it’s easier, which is itself an example of the accommodations that often occur when people emigrate to this country) has an Iranian businessman father and a New York Jewish mother. Neither parent puts much emphasis on ethnicity or religion, but their marriage technically made young Saïd a Jewish-Iranian-American, which is quite a burden to place on a boy who, like most boys, would like to know who he really is. It’s also the source of many of the script’s funnier moments.
In a pre-curtain appearance, Saïd introduced himself, welcomed the audience and provided background on what was happening on stage, where “director” Cassidy Jamahl Brown and two actors (Patricia Austin and Alan Coyne) were rehearsing what Saïd claimed was a work-in-progress, or “collage of scenes,” that would ultimately become his autobiographical play. While this was very irregular for a world premiere, I looked forward to any revelations he might provide.
Turns out this was all a clever ruse. Although he looked and sounded like I expected he would, this was not Saïd the playwright speaking, it was an actor (Damien Seperi) portraying Saïd in a play-within-a-play, nor was it the real director. For the remainder of the show, directed by Evren Odcikin, the real director, these four excellent performers—plus Jenna Apollonia, an assistant stage manager who makes a brief appearance as herself—dance around the moral issues posed by his mixed identity, without coming to any conclusive resolution.
There will be those who will fault Saïd for not taking firm positions against “the enemies of democracy,” even if they are “his people.” His answer seems to be that, fairly or unfairly, who and where you are often determines how you are labeled. One thing is clear from Saïd’s Autobiography, however: He’s a full-blown skeptic, and anything that links him with any form of terrorism is a contradiction in terms.
NOW PLAYING: Autobiography of a Terrorist runs through May 7 at the Potrero Stage,1695 18th Street, #C101 Annex, San Francisco; 415/626-4061; goldenthread.org.