What personal principles would you abandon for a million dollars?
That’s the central question posed by Yussef El Guindi’s play “Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes,” although it’s couched in the world of Hollywood. The comedy’s protagonist is Ashraf, a struggling Arab-American actor who is offered his first Hollywood starring role with a payday of up to $1 million.
“The only catch is that he is being cast in this role of a typical sort of sniveling, evil terrorist who holds a family hostage,” says Carla Milarch, director of Theatre Nova’s production of “Jihad Jones,” which runs through Aug. 16 at the Yellow Barn in its Michigan premiere.
The role is personally repugnant to Ashraf, who previously turned down a similarly stereotypical part in the film referenced in the play’s title. But his agent, less concerned with the moral implications of the decision, brings in the film’s top-flight director and female lead to give Ashraf an impromptu audition.
“It sort of telescopes out to larger societal issues, but all in the course of one raucous meeting with the director and the actress and the agent and the actor himself,” Milarch says. “They all try to convince him and he tries to navigate this larger ethical conundrum of what’s worth sacrificing your values for.”
Ashraf isn’t the only character in the play to be put in the position of having to demean himself for Hollywood money. Cassandra Shapely, the lead actress in the movie Ashraf is approached to star in, admits she’s made her career playing “whores, skanks, saints and virgins.” Detroit actress Clearie McCarthy, who plays Cassandra, says she related to the character’s situation.
“I’ve had different roles, but it is a little bit more narrow for women,” she says. “It’s hard to find those really juicy roles like Hamlet for a woman. For something like this script to even bring the issue up is remarkable and says a lot for the fact that things are changing.”
“Jihad Jones” will be the fourth show for the new Theatre Nova company, which Milarch founded last year after splitting from Ann Arbor’s long-running Performance Network Theatre. The play originally caught Milarch’s eye while he was serving on the literary committee for a national showcase of new plays about three years ago.
“Sometimes things are sort of polemic diatribes or you’ve heard all the arguments before,” she says. “But this is really just a fresh and insightful perspective on some of these issues.”
While Milarch says she found the show “hilarious” upon first reading, it was too “out there” for the Performance Network.
“It was a little bit edgy, so we passed on it,” she says. “But now with Theatre Nova we have the ability to do slightly more pushing-the-envelope fare.”
Although the subject matter is offbeat, Detroit actor Michael Lopetrone says the essence of the show is universal. Lopetrone, who plays Ashraf, describes the character as an “everyman.”
“Everybody could be put in this same situation and have this type of conflict within themselves,” he says. “If they’re going to be offered a million dollars for them to undermine their morals, there’s going to be a conflict.”
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer
‘Jihad Jones and the Kalashnikov Babes’
Through Aug. 16
7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
The Yellow Barn
416 W. Huron, Ann Arbor