by Awais Masood
While going to watch Ajoka Theatre’s new play ‘Amrika Chalo’, I had in mind the pleasant memories from last year when I watched its play ‘Dara’, a beautiful ensemble of colours, costumes, music and dance that brought to life the historical tragedy of Dara Shikoh. Keeping in context, the history of Ajoka as a torch bearer of progressive art and the quality of its plays, my expectations were really high. ‘Amrika Chalo-Destination USA’, written and directed by Shahid Nadeem, was billed as a ‘satirical response to the love-hate relationship between Pakistan and the US’. Its brochure claimed that it was ‘a light-hearted self-critical view of double standards and hypocrisies’. Unfortunately, it came out neither self-critical nor satirical at the end.
The play is centered at the US embassy in Pakistan where a number of visa applicants face the ridiculously strict security measures. The applicants hail from diverse backgrounds and include a business man, a student, a would-be-illegal immigrant seeking a tourist visa, a puppeteer, a politician and an old couple looking forward to meet their grand children. The diversity within the Pakistani applicants is sharply contrasted with the stereotypical representation of embassy staff. The lack of diversity can be gauged by the fact that the roles of all six interviewers were played by two actors speaking a familiar Anglo-Indian Urdu accent, a predictable instrument used to portray colonial British in our media. The play comes out more as a practice in Occidentalism that portrays the embassy staff and by extension all Americans as rude and arrogant though stereotyping does not remain limited to Americans. The guard at the embassy gate is a Pakhtun (a predictable stereotyped ‘chowkidar’) who believes in using stick as a ‘correctional measure’ for his wife who also serves part-time as a female security guard. The Pakistani politician is portrayed as a promiscuous and corrupt man who is planning to go into exile after being removed from power. One the other hand, the play does not put much effort in discussing the role of Pakistani military in bringing the country to the current state.
The play was supplemented with a distracting slide show on both sides of stage displaying different caricatures and images, focusing mainly upon US military invasions, drone attacks hence taking the predictable, fashionable and convenient anti-imperialist line that strives to place violence within Pakistani society as a result of American policies. Taking this idea to an extreme, the most horrifying moment in the play came when two jihadi militants broke the fourth wall and addressed the audience, reminding them of the atrocities committed by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine hence proving their anti-imperialist credentials. An attempt was made to balance it out in the end by highlighting their own desire to seek American visas but it certainly was not enough to undo the already done damage.
The most troubling aspect of the play is the highly objectionable characterization of homosexuals. The lead character named Raymond – played exceptionally well by Furqan Majeed – a gay security guard at the embassy is effeminate, sports long hair and is fond of wearing lip-stick. The writer’s attitude towards LGBT community remains hostile, objectifying them as a source of laughter and strengthening the very prejudices that run in our society against the community. The character is made to deliver innuendos and dialogues that were clearly double-entendre in nature, drawing hoots and whistles from the crowd. At certain points, the dialogues became at-par with the ones delivered regularly in the notorious commercial theatre of Lahore. Raymond – a caricature of the CIA contractor Raymond Davies who was arrested earlier in 2011 for shooting two Pakistanis – is a gun-trotting sexual offender who can harass anybody from a Pakistani businessman to an old woman. The message was more than obvious near the end when the slide show came up with alternating images of gay prides in US and hunger, suffering and violence across rest of the world thus implying that homosexuality is nothing more than an American cultural practise in hedonism. No attempt was made to highlight the fact that LGBT community in USA -quite like the rest of the world – has remained a persecuted minority throughout its history, facing discrimination, social and physical violence and is still striving for equal rights and acceptance in an increasingly religious and intolerant society. Unlike the film ‘Bol’, this play does not make any attempt to sensitize the audience towards the fact that homosexuality and transgender are phenomena with natural roots but rather treats the homosexual character as a subject of amusement for the audience, something that could have easily been a part of a play written by a religiously conservative.
In essence, ‘Amrika Chalo’ is an attempt to court the populist anti-American sentiment and the lure of commercial theatre at the same time. The brilliant acting by Furqan Majeed and solo dance performance by Wahab Shah could be considered as the highlights but overall the play fails in delivering any progressive message to the audience. Rather than bridging gaps during the current trends leading towards a self-imposed isolation, it ends up widening them. The play tries to establish its liberal credentials by poking fun at the mullah (with a disposable beard) but at the same time holds a hostile tone towards sexual minorities and certain ethnicities. One may want to take heed to the writer’s advice at the start of play, requesting the audience to take the play light-heartedly but if stereotyping bearded mullahs, politicians, homosexuals and rest of the world is all that our art theatre can do then one needs to ask what service it has done to the liberal and progressive cause.