In the mid-1990s, Egyptian-American actor-comedian Ahmed Ahmed got his first big break when he was offered a part in the Hollywood movie Executive Decision. He was excited about working alongside the likes of Halle Berry and Kurt Russell, but he was decidedly less enthusiastic at the thought of playing a terrorist in a film about a group of Muslim fundamentalists who hijack a plane. This was just one of many "bad guy" parts he had been offered of late. "I called my agent and I said, 'Can I go out for roles that are other than these roles I'm being cast in?'" the actor told a National Public Radio reporter in 2005. "My agent at the time said, 'You're only going to go out for these Arab roles as long as your name is Ahmed Ahmed.'"
Egyptian-American playwright Yussef El Guindi's new play, Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes, so closely echoes the story described above that you wonder whether the playwright based his comedy specifically on Ahmed's life. Set in a Hollywood agent's script-strewn, envy-green-walled office (meticulously brought to life in Golden Thread's premiere production by scenic designer James Faerron) the play focuses on a Middle Eastern actor's struggle to make good in Tinseltown without being cast as a plane hijacker or suicide bomber. The resemblance between Ahmed and Ashraf, the long-suffering thespian at the center of Guindi's play, could easily be a coincidence. Many actors with Muslim roots working in this country share the typecasting burden — which is precisely the problem Guindi sets out to explore with his comedy. But while Jihad Jones succeeds in spotlighting the racial stereotyping crisis in the commercial media, it does a better job of pigeonholing its characters than mining the problem in a memorable way or suggesting possible solutions.
Guindi strikes up his theme right from the start with a scene in which agent Barry
(David Sinaiko) tries to persuade actor Ashraf (Kamal Marayati) to take on the role of a gun-toting radical in a big-budget film. Ashraf feels torn: On one hand, it's the role of a lifetime. He'll get to act opposite sexy A-lister Cassandra Shapely and work with Julius Steele, one of Hollywood's most respected directors. On the other, playing "Mohammed, the bug-eyed, psycho sadist terrorist" amounts to self-betrayal for an actor desperate to overcome racial stereotyping. This argument essentially repeats itself over and over for the entire 90-minute play with little variation or development. Julius (Mark Rafael Truitt) and Cassandra (Cat Thompson) show up to conduct a screen test with Ashraf while Barry does his best to massage his client's misgivings. But despite moments of color injected by the presence of Jessica Kitchens as Barry's adorably starstruck secretary Peggy, the action and characterizations otherwise generally feel as monochrome as the one-dimensional Hollywood product the play tries so hard to send up.
It makes sense from a satirical standpoint that most of the comedy's non-Arab characters should be treated as outlandish stock personalities and the one Middle Eastern character portrayed as a "regular guy." The actors certainly execute their cardboard characters convincingly. Truitt's introverted movie director possesses the stern concentration, furrowed brow, and basso profundo of an Orson Welles or David Lean. Thompson plays Cassandra as though she's a comic-book starlet: She spends most of her time onstage pouting, posing, and complaining about people wasting her time. And Sinaiko's hammy portrayal of the archetypal fawning agent brings to mind Nathan Lane in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton or The Producers. This conceit could work, except the predictability of the non–Middle Eastern characters gets boring after a while, and Ashraf himself turns out to be as one-dimensional as the rest. Marayati's neurotic take, with his constant kvetching, hand-wringing, and whiny voice, is vintage Woody Allen. As a result, the satirical potential in the idea of turning stereotypes on their heads doesn't come off.
Tightly directed by Mark Routhier, El Guindi's play does show isolated signs of thematic ingenuity. Before Cassandra enters, Barry and Ashraf discuss the screen siren's recent appearance as a Playboy centerfold. The parallel between Cassandra "prostituting" herself in the magazine and Ashraf doing the same in the movie draws attention to the fine — and universal — line between art and exploitation. Unfortunately, the playwright only skims the surface of this idea. The rest of the play trundles along in a foreseeable fashion, hitting us over the head with the same complaint ad infinitum. I'd like to be able to experience Jihad Jones as Barry would have Ashraf approach the film script: "Look beyond the obvious; try it. Read it as an actor and not as someone with a stick up his ass." But just as Ashraf has trouble seeing beyond the movie's "godawful stereotypes and enough cheese to put me off dairy for the rest of my life," it's hard for me to glimpse much beyond the obvious in Jihad Jones.
From Disney's Aladdin to the FOX television series 24, unseemly portraits of Arab characters have become increasingly common in U.S. popular culture over the past two decades. In the current political climate, Arab evildoers frequently replace Cold War Russian spies and Nazi soldiers in World War II as the villains in many a TV and film epic. While this trend has doubtless negatively affected public perceptions of the Arab world, some commercial endeavors are helping to mitigate the damage. With its unconventional take on Middle Eastern characters, the Golden Globe– and Emmy-nominated al-Qaeda-themed 2005 miniseries Sleeper Cell arguably counteracts stereotypes with its widespread appeal. And 24 star Kiefer Sutherland made a public announcement during an episode in support of U.S.-Arab relations.
Ahmed Ahmed, for his part, truly knows how to use comedy to explode clichés. The silver-tongued performer once jokingly explained how he's able to identify the air marshal when he gets on a plane: "It's the guy who's reading People magazine upside down and is looking right at me." El Guindi could learn a thing or two about satire from this man.