By Javaad Alipoor. Directed by Javaad Alipoor and Kirsty Housley. A Javaad Alipoor production, presented by the Cultch and Diwali in B.C. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Thursday, November 1. Continues until November 10
Wow, you can pack a lot into an hour of theatre.
In The Believers Are But Brothers British writer-performer Javaad Alipoor uses multiple interfaces, including direct address to the audience, video projection, and a live group chat on WhatsApp, to explore, in his words, “men, politics, and the Internet”. The play’s form mirrors its subject matter, clicking link after associative link.
But The Believers Are But Brothers is not an attack on social media; Alipoor tells us that he appreciates the community he finds there and values the opportunity it affords to “blur the edges of [him]self”. The play raises thought-provoking questions about just how blurry those edges can get. Alipoor draws on his own experience, alongside the imagined stories of Atif and Mirwan, two radicalized British Muslims based on young men with whom he had brief real-life interactions online, and Ethan, a.k.a. Father Lulz, a California white boy whose lack of success in dating metastasizes into chat-room–fuelled misogyny.
To understand the worlds of these characters, it helps to know words like jihadism, 4chan, Gamergate, doxxing, libtards, lulz, and memes—but for the uninitiated, Alipoor does an excellent job of explaining. He demonstrates firsthand by having audience members guess—on WhatsApp—how many Muslims there are in the U.K., and how many of them have joined ISIS. Lit-up cellphones dot the audience; the guesses vary wildly. “It doesn’t matter if you know what you’re talking about, you just get your voice out there,” Alipoor observes.
“On-screen there’s always already a war being fought,” Alipoor’s narrator tells us of Ethan, the American. “He may look alone, but he is invisibly surrounded.” This idea is present in Ben Pacey’s stage design: Alipoor occasionally turns his back to us to attend to one of the screens (one of them shows a first-person-shooter game) on a desk facing the audience; another desk faces his, where another man (producer Luke Emery) sits in shadow at another computer screen.
The textural variety of the show is rich: one moment, you’re reading texts in your lap or taking part in what feels like an informal conversation; the next, you’re watching a face on a screen describe a milestone in the history of ISIS in language that is both poetic and disturbing. The imprisonment and torture of Sayyid Qutb, an early advocate of violent jihad in 1950s Egypt, is described as leading to “a vision of redemption that you can only reach by climbing a mountain of corpses”.
Believers doesn’t offer easy answers to any of the difficult questions it asks. There’s more to take in than a single viewing affords; that’s an enormous achievement.