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The young Swedish playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri was sipping an Americano in Manhattan’s West Village, just a short walk away from where his latest play, "I Call My Brothers," was in rehearsals for its American debut at the New Ohio, an off-Broadway theater that could fit inside the David Barton gym next door.
“It’s very hard to say no to New York,” Khemiri says in a corner of The Path Cafe. “I’ve been finding lots of reasons these past couple of years to come back.”
Though he is popular internationally—his six plays and three novels have been translated into fifteen languages—Khemiri is just beginning to gain traction in the United States. "I Call My Brothers" marks his return to the New York stage three years after the successful run of his Obie-winning play, "Invasion!," a raucous mix of slapstick and political satire that targeted the Western fear of Middle Easterners.
Last year, he published an open letter to the Swedish government in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter, criticizing a policy of ethnic profiling. It exploded on social media and set off a national debate that propelled him to a level of fame rare for playwrights these days. The Swedish prime minister discussed the piece on national television, and it was later reprinted internationally, including in the pages of The New York Times.
Khemiri, 35, is the son of a Tunisian father and a Swedish mother. He stands six feet, four inches. He grew up in Hornstull, a middle-class suburb of Stockholm. As a kid, he became enamored of American rap, which resonated with him because he felt like an outsider in the country of his birth.
“The first hip-hop I heard was Fear of a Black Planet, by Public Enemy, on an old music cassette. I remember just listening to it and feeling my brain kind of explode, like Chuck D.’s voice rearranged my brain. I didn’t know anything about the culture. I was looking at it from the outside, so everything became symbols. I remember trying to figure out why Flavor Flav had all those clocks. Is it a political thing? Is he trying to say there are different times in different time zones? I had all these theories as to why he had these huge clocks. Maybe he’s trying to deconstruct the Western idea of time?”
Khemiri studied literature and economics in college, but politically engaged black American music and literature offered him a blueprint for his plays and novels—social commentary laced with comedy.
“I find that in the works of James Baldwin,” he says, “but I also find that in the stories told by Kendrick Lamar. It’s the same universe to me.” Lamar is his current favorite, having replaced earlier heroes, who include Flavor Flav, Royce da 5'9", and Obie Trice.
"I Call My Brothers" is a more sobering play than Invasion! It came about after a suicide bombing in Stockholm, in 2010, which is suspected to have been carried out by an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen.
“Our reaction to him was very far from Anders Behring Breivik, because he was a blond Christian,” Khemiri says, referring to the Norwegian mass murderer. “I wanted to write something about this feeling of trying to perform normality—the consequences of living in a world where you’re perceived as ‘the other’ or as nonexistent or a criminal.”
Though his subject is nominally Sweden, it’s easy for American audiences to watch his latest play and see it through the lens of stop-and-frisk New York or stand-your-ground Florida. “I was not too interested in being too kind to the audience,” he says. “There’s definitely humor, but it’s an uncomfortable humor, which is the kind of humor I like.”
Before he left for rehearsal, I asked him about his favorite Kendrick Lamar song.
“There are so many of them,” he says. “I was one of those people who followed him with his mixtapes. ‘Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst’ is one of the tracks I listen to the most. And also a very not-well-known track, ‘The Relevant.’ Whenever you’re in doubt about what you’re doing, you should listen to ‘The Relevant.’”