Asif Khan as Isaac in "Love, Bombs & Apples"
Asif Khan as Isaac in "Love, Bombs & Apples"

Comedy and humanity as Pakistani-British actor steps into American Jewish role

It’s emblematic of the play  “Love, Bombs & Apples,” a new production of the Middle East-centric Golden Thread theater company, that a Pakistani-British actor plays an American Jew in a play written by a British son of Iraqi parents.

In one of four vignettes, called “Landing Strip,” the apolitical character Isaac infuriates his Jewish Voice for Peace activist girlfriend when he reveals that he is thinking more about their erotic life than about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“How did Gaza get into our bedroom?” the hapless Isaac exclaims.

In the other three monologic vignettes, actor Asif Khan also plays a Palestinian actor on the make in the West Bank, a Muslim immigrant obsessed with the Apple store in the northern English city of Bradford, and a naive Pakistani writer arrested on terrorism charges in London.

The quartet of monologues is also billed as a comedy, which adds a whole other level to the kind of theatrical experience Golden Thread is bringing to the Bay Area. “Love, Bombs & Apples” played to sold-out houses in London over two extended runs in 2015, followed by performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It holds its North American premiere at the Potrero Stage, previewing April 19 and opening Saturday, April 21 with a preshow reception featuring playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak.

Golden Thread founding artistic director Torange Yeghiazarian calls the playwright “one of the most influential Middle Eastern voices writing in English today.” His short plays include “Lost Kingdom,” which was selected for San Francisco’s ReOrient 2015 Festival at Golden Thread, and “Trump in Palestine,” performed last year at Theatre 503 in England.

Born in Prague to left-leaning Iraqi parents who emigrated for political reasons, Abdulrazzak returned to Iraq with his family as a child when the political environment was more hopeful. Then Saddam Hussein came to power, and they left again, eventually settling in the UK.

“As immigrants they were keen that I have a sensible job,” he said, speaking from London a week before his departure for San Francisco. “Also, my English was poor, so I gravitated to the sciences, although in studying English literature I had a sense that the language was beautiful.”

While earning his doctorate in molecular biology and continuing through his postdoctoral years, Abdulrazzak began to write short stories on the side. Then the Iraq War happened. After Saddam Hussein was deposed, his father returned to Iraq to engage in postwar politics.

“I was terribly worried about him,” Abdulrazzak said. Those concerns resulted in the composition of his first play, the award-winning “Baghdad Wedding,” produced in London in 2007. For another seven years he tried to sustain both his scientific profession and his writing, but by 2013, the call of theater won out.

Abdulrazzak, who never formally studied theater, continued to create new plays in quick succession. Today, he is a writer commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and a recipient of the Arab British Centre Award for Culture, among other honors.

I felt that no one was addressing these issues, at least in the theater.

“Love, Bombs & Apples” is his first full-length play to be produced in the U.S. The play’s first vignette, “Love in the Time of Barriers,” originated from a story a Palestinian actor friend told him. He wrote the first draft in 2009. “It was faithful to the version my friend told me, rooted in his experience,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned with whether it was also part fantasy.”

The unnamed Palestinian character talks about his sexual frustration living in the population-dense West Bank, and his drive to seize an opportunity that presents itself one night when he meets a liberated English woman. Their sexual encounter is nearly — but not quite — ruined by Israeli soldiers.

“I wanted it to be not-violent,” Abdulrazzak said, “Not shmaltzy, but also not too antagonistic. The encounter is more symbolic.”

In 2014, following another wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence in Gaza, Abdulrazzak realized that at least one perspective was missing from the group of monologues that would become “Love, Bombs & Apples.” But rather than adding Jewish voices from Israel or even Britain, in “Landing Strip” he chose to create characters who were American Jews.

“America is so fundamental to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “England’s role is past.”

Reading about the conflict, he knew about a growing split in attitudes between younger American Jews and those who had lived through the Six-Day War, as well as among academics.

“I felt that no one was addressing these issues, at least in the theater: censorship, the generational divide and conflicts within communities,” he said.

He describes Isaac as “a regular American guy, not ideological by temperament, who happens to be a part of a political family,” but the playwright also put something of himself into the Jewish character.

“For me it is not a stretch. There are factions within all communities,” he said.

Through humor, he attempts to reconcile, or at least embrace, human foibles and contradictions. “When dealing with topics that are dark or heavy, I like to come at it from a humorous angle,” he said. “Then you are at least meeting your audience halfway — these people who have spent their hard-earned money to come out for an evening’s entertainment. The minute they laugh, they are engaged.”

“Love, Bombs & Apples,” through May 6 at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F. Opening-night tickets ($75) include a reception with playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak and director Rosamunde Hutt. A postshow discussion follows the April 22 performance. $15-$38.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.