It will come as no surprise that this is a controversial play. Surely not since Ravenhill’s Shopping and F***ing has there been a play title that will so instantly polarise. Jennifer Jajeh, writer and performer, is clearly aware of the controversy she’s courting with; I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You is the first play I’ve ever attended where a voiceover at the beginning of the play asked audience members not to engage the performer in unsolicited political discussion after the show. True, like much of the show, this is done in a light, jokey way, but scratch the surface and there are deep, contested issues at play.
Jajeh isn’t sure quite who she is. She’s a Christian Palestinian- American, she knows that much, although she’s more often mistaken as Hispanic. Long experience has taught her that mentioning she’s Palestinian is generally a risky move in America; people either smile nervously or else engage her in political discussion. So, part of the long tradition of those dealing with the emotional baggage of being part of a diaspora, she returns to her parent’s birthplace of Ramallah in Palestine.
In this one-woman show Jajeh makes the brave decision to play all of the twenty or so characters she meets on her way, from the kids selling gum at the side of the road to the Palestinian woman from a previous audience who just couldn’t believe that she was happy being single. This could have been cringe-worthy, but Jajeh plays each character with such a clarity and focus that it becomes a triumph.
She plays herself very much as an innocent abroad, and at times a rather petulant one, whose main interest at the start of the Second Intifada is whether it will stop her popping over to Jerusalem for late night parties. Her wide-eyed naivety makes her an effective guide to a complex political situation, but I wondered to what extent it truly reflected her character. Beneath the apparent guilelessness of this show sizzles an urgent, burning political piece of new writing. Helped by some highly effective sound design the tension is slowly cranked up as her encounters with Israeli forces become increasingly dangerous.
The play is encumbered by some unnecessary and distracting dramatic devices: the whole conceit of having Jajeh answer questions telepathically transmitted to her by the audience was out of place in a play that was otherwise so full of truth. Similarly, a pretend jokey chat with her technicians when they supposedly couldn’t find a map with Palestine on it felt laboured.
The title is no mere hyperbole; as Jajeh admits at the end of the show ‘Do I hate all Israelis? At times, yes’. Some people will find this so offensive that they will want to stay away. For the rest, see it. This is the best kind of political theatre: it seduces you with vivid characters and leaves you walking out of the theatre - at least for that moment - convinced by the inescapable logic of the message.