Wednesday, October 20, 2010
"I was tired of explaining myself," says Jennifer Jajeh, discussing the origins of her one-woman tragicomedy I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I'm Afraid to Tell You.
The show's national tour visits the University of Pittsburgh's Frick Fine Art Auditorium on Sun., Oct. 24.
Jajeh, a Palestinian-American born in San Francisco, had struggled with identity her entire life.
Though she grew up in what she calls a very liberal home, she felt she didn't actually know which "home" to identify with.
As a Palestinian, people would often treat her as a political correspondent -- always expected to offer her serious thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I get constantly asked about it and challenged and questioned, and people want to know my political beliefs in really inappropriate situations, like in job interviews," she says in a phone interview.
In 2000, she left New York for her parents' hometown, Ramallah. Perhaps there she would find answers, she thought.
What was planned as a three-month summer visit turned into a year-and-a-half stay, during which began the Second Intifada, a violent Palestinian uprising. Though her parents begged her to return to the U.S., Jajeh stayed and discovered what it's like to live in occupied Palestine.
When she did return to the States, in 2001, she says, "I clearly had post-traumatic stress disorder from living in a war zone."
Ten days later, two hijacked planes crashed into the twin towers.
"‘Why do these people hate us?' is what a lot of people were saying after September 11th," Jajeh recalls. "There's such a misunderstanding of Arabs and Muslims in general....There was such a need of humanization of stories."
But Jajeh kept her stories bottled; they emerged only periodically, in her acting workshops. It was under the encouragement of her workshop peers and W. Kamau Bell (who directs I Heart Hamas) that she began to write.
"I had no vision for a show at all, and it kind of took on a life of its own," she says. "Once I started writing it, people started to book it before I even finished it."
On a whim, she submitted an unfinished version of I Heart Hamas to the New York Fringe Festival. The festival responded immediately, telling her to complete it as soon as possible and inviting her to perform.
She's been performing it ever since, in cities around the U.S., to general acclaim. Said a Chicago Tribune reviewer this past May, "[Jajeh's] discoveries of what life in Ramallah is like for Palestinians may be revelatory for most Americans."
The show is also refreshing to Jajeh as an actress used to being typecast as everything but Palestinian. "I was just frustrated with what I'd been getting...and I wanted a script that really meant something to me," she says.
The 90-minute show is divided into two parts. Half deals with the stereotypes and assumptions that she hears as a Palestinian in America, and the other half deals with her tumultuous and life-changing experience in Ramallah.
As the controversial yet silly title suggests, the San Francisco-based Jajeh adds her own comedic twist.
"I'm taking ownership of ideas and words and conflicts that people are very serious about...and I'm trying to kind of loosen it up and open up a conversation in a different way...take some fear away that you can be a little more playful with these ideas."
The show is her contribution to a conversation that she views as highly limited by the media. "It's a pretty small range of stories that are being told. There's not a diversity of Palestinian voices that are being heard," she says. "There's not room for the conversation and analysis of what is happening."
And Jajeh makes clear that although she's frequently prompted to speak for her entire ethnic group, her is only one voice amongst many. "I'm not representing the Palestinian perspective; I'm representing my Palestinian perspective."
Jajeh performs at 2 p.m. Sun., Oct. 24, at the Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Schenley Drive, Oakland. The show is free (www.ihearthamas.com).