“Thank you for doing your part to keep our great nation safe” says the pre-show recorded announcement. That means turning off your cellphone. In Broken Nose Theatre’s production of LANGUAGE ROOMS, all actions and words are expressions of loyalty to the United States---or disloyalty. It just depends on your point of view. Whether you call this humor-laced show a dark comedy or a deep tragedy also depends on your point of view.
Yussef El Guindi’s play takes place within the confines of a government detainment facility. Throughout, there’s an incongruity between the impersonal environment with its automated sliding doors and omnipresent ceiling camera and mundane accessories like a milk carton, a red clown nose and a baseball stuffed into a sock that become tools of torture. It’s a relief when an iron turns out to be solely for pressing a shirt.
LANGUAGE ROOMS explore allegiances
Ahmed, brought to the U.S. from Egypt early enough to speak English like a native and Arabic as a second language, works at what seems to be a C.I.A. black site, one that is painted white and lit by harsh fluorescents. The sterile facility and rigid protocols of Ahmed’s job mask powerful emotions, a contrast that brings to this viewer’s mind the term “white heat” – a temperature so hot that it emits light.
While Ahmed (Salar Ardebili) perceives himself as an all-in patriot, his colleague Nasser (Bassam Abdelfattah) warns him that his behavior has raised questions about his loyalty. A fellow Muslim and superior Arabic-speaker, Nasser points out that Ahmed’s conduct during a recent interrogation as well as such stand-offish habits as showering privately instead of with the other men have put Ahmed under a cloud of suspicion. It's not good...and then it gets worse. Act 1 closes with a stunning revelation that squeezes Ahmed between his past and his present so tightly, it shakes the very foundation of his existence.
Heartbreak in Broken Nose Theatre’s production
LANGUAGE ROOMS, directed by Kaiser Zaki Ahmed, hits its emotional high mark with Samir (Bilal Dardai) who makes his first appearance dressed in traditional Muslim clothing. With a warmth that the other characters lack, Samir describes the joy of obtaining a U.S. visas for his family versus the reality of pulling up roots and starting over. The former engineer, who now scratches out a living with a little shop that caters to fellow Muslims, compares the immigrant experience to baseball: The batter can’t go back. He has to hit the ball and run the bases.
When Samir appears a second time, he’s in jeans and sneakers, his head in a black hood and his wrists in handcuffs. Despite always standing during the national anthem at ballgames, he has been detained because of his repeated contacts with a known terrorist. Ahmed must determine if Samir’s explanation for this dubious pattern is a cover for ties to professional terrorists or a heartbreaking response to personal loneliness.
“You work your ass off to fit in and this is what you get,” declares Ahmed. “You don’t fit in as much as you think you do,” counters Nasser. According to Samir, “immigration is not for sissies.” LANGUAGE ROOMS is not for sissies either. But the rewards are rich. Whatever your point of view, you will certainly want to silence your cellphone and immerse yourself in the white heat of those whose loyalties are always in question.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Yussef El Guindi – playwright
Kaiser Zaki Ahmed – director
Sotirios Livaditis – set design
Annaliese Voci – costume design
Conchita Avitia – lighting design
Will Quam – sound design
Charlotte Lastra – prop designer
David Weiss – dramaturg
Natalie Wagner – stage manager
Rose Hamill – production manager
Now through May 18
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM
Sundays at 3 pm
The Den Theatre
1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows recently aired on BBC Radio 4.