In 1980, when I was in the sixth grade, a couple of boys approached me at recess. One of them said, “You’re I-rain-ian, right? Are you going to bring a bomb to school?”
Since I had no answer, both of them just snickered and walked away. I was baffled by their barely contained hostility. What did the Iranian hostage crisis, building like background music to a menacing crescendo, have to do with me and my family’s name?
From late 1979 to early 1981, Time detailed the crisis on coffee tables everywhere. The Middle East was no longer a remote desert place: Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s despotic leader, threatened the safety of our American living rooms. On one cover in particular, “The Test of Wills,” a small corner photograph of then-President Jimmy Carter sat superimposed over a full-page illustrated profile of Khomeini’s face, his rage-filled eyes radiating a half-red, half-yellow light. The images telegraphed a frightening message: Khomeini’s will was dominant.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s play Autobiography of a Terrorist begins in this same era of cross-cultural tension. What Sayrafiezadeh smartly dramatizes about that crisis is how it set the stage for America’s deepening antagonism with the Middle East, especially after 9/11. The story he sets out to tell, his autobiography, is hijacked by global politics. These historical events are the supporting actors who regularly influence his personal anecdotes (For a primer on the United States’ intervention in Iran’s past, see Marjane Satrapi‘s animated film, Persepolis). That they’ve also persisted into a series of ongoing current events is not lost on him.
The playwright grew up half-Iranian, which was more than enough to negate the American — in his case, also Jewish — half. Passing as a white boy was possible until someone looked at the odd spelling of his troublesome last name. Throughout Autobiography, there’s a running joke about people mispronouncing it: “Stirfryday” is the funniest example (mine is “Ed Lapore”). The play repeats this seemingly unimportant point to make a larger one. A certain American demographic remains indifferent and wary of other cultures and other languages. For those who can’t pass as a Smith or Jones, Sayrafiezadeh also points out that the rah-rah jingoism of a USA chant always carries a belligerent edge.
For many in the West, including me, the face of Iran became synonymous with Ayatollah Khomeini’s angry one. Autobiography also indirectly shows how his image haunts the American psyche to such an extent that it hangs like a mask over the individuality of a Middle Eastern face. Despite his Iranian father’s absence (he abandoned his wife and newborn son), Sayrafiezadeh demonstrates his liminal position as a citizen here. People identify his character as “other,” a suspect with divided ties and loyalties, even though, as a boy, he has never been to Iran and doesn’t seem to know what Farsi is.
Sayrafiezadeh takes a Pirandellian approach to this absurd disconnect. As the play unfolds, it’s abruptly overtaken, rewritten and recast by the white director (Cassidy Brown). He means to excise what’s most likely to offend (American) audiences, but Saïd (Damien Seperi) fights for narrative control. This is a perfect demonstration of how cultural, and artistic, appropriation works. But there’s another internal struggle on display. When the director reads from Saïd’s journal, which significantly departs from the original manuscript, the character’s inflammatory thoughts and feelings show up on stage. That’s where the nitroglycerin of this play lives, in that space where a child grows up believing he doesn’t belong anywhere. That’s the psychic legacy bequeathed to him by the intolerance of small-minded Americans.
Autobiography of a Terrorist, through May 7, at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., 415-626-4061 or goldenthread.org.