Can a play about Islam, female power and basketball celebrity be more than a collection of clashing isms? Yes, in the skillful hands of writer Kareem Fahmy and Artists Repertory Theatre (now through Jan. 29). “American Fast” entertains and enlightens, and is never preachy, as it races through an imaginary March Madness in a very American Ramadan.
Artists’ Repertory Theatre, which is still borrowing The Armory’s basement studio while its own space is renovated, uses the arena format in which two banks of seats face each other while the actors use the long narrow space in between. This captures the courtside intimacy (and claustrophobia) of the basketball arena and the heroine’s three big relationships: with her mom, her female coach and her college boyfriend.
Khady Salama is a female college basketball star who starts to believe her own publicity and becomes a role model for young Muslim women everywhere, thanks to social media. And as in that other social media hit “Dear Evan Hansen,” and in every high school drama on TV, the social media that makes her turns around and bites her. While that is a routine plot arc, it’s fascinating to watch how she hashes out her relationships, and how she balances her own needs against those of others.
Los Angeles-based actress Jessica Damouni (pronounced da-MOON-y) carries writer Kareem Fahmy’s play the way she carries the college basketball team, featuring in almost every scene.
Tightly directed by Chip Miller, with an inventive set design by Tyler Jay Buswell, the show bounces along. It’s in the balance, to the penultimate scene, whether her team wins or not, and whether she triumphs in her self-actualization.
Eat the loss
Like any play that tries to simulate a sport in a tight space with non-athletes, the actual basketball parts must be stylized. In this case, Damouni’s character Khady charges up and down the stage without a ball, in various poses, sometimes all aggression and elbows, sometimes almost crouching, sometimes like a wounded animal when she’s not playing well. (The big plot point is Khady promises her mother she will fast for Ramadan during March Madness, and promises her coach that she won’t. It affects her body, mind and spirit.)
“Chip and I and Melory Mirashrafi (the associate director) just put some music on, and they just wanted to see what moves came out. Then Chip went away and created these sequences from those movements that we found together.”
Each game in the tournament is dealt with more and more quickly, because there’s only so much fake basketball you can watch, and because the characters grow deeper and more resonant as the action proceeds. Their conversations between the games become its own sport.
At one point Khady has a shoot-out with her boyfriend Gabe, played by Tony Shepherd. He is also a Muslim, and a basketball star, but his team exited early from March Madness. Instead of shooting hoops, the actors bounce the ball once and a light shines on the net to indicate success or not.
“The most wonderful thing about Kareem (Fahmy, the playwright) is his writing really lends itself to acting, it makes our job so easy, the dialogue feels so natural. And the whole play does feel like a basketball game, where you are balancing the back-and-forth between each character throughout the scene.”
Damouni pronounces it with a long A, “bars-ket-ball.” She’s Australian, from Perth, and while generally athletic, this was never her sport. Rowing, kickboxing, marathons and skateboarding are her sports. She jokes:
“At one point in rehearsal we thought it would be fun to shoot hoops, but then the lighting department was like, ‘No, you’re not doing that. That’s some really expensive lighting equipment (nearby).’ Thank God, because I wouldn’t have been making any of those shots.”
She added that Luan Schooler, the dramaturg, put together a great packet of research that gave the actors plenty of background information about basketball history and Islam. And of course she watched “The Last Dance” on Netflix.
S.W.A.N.A. be famous
While the play is about the boxes women and minorities are put into —Khady complains that she can’t be just an athlete, she has to be packaged a female Muslim athlete —Damouni is less stressed about the opportunities for actresses of Middle Eastern descent. She uses the new term, S.W.A.N.A., which is the decolonialized word for the South West Asian/ North African region. She’s in a database of S.W.A.N.A. actors, and her agent gets pinged when roles come up.
“There’s a lot of things, like the Google Drive things that were created in order to spread the word,” about acting jobs for S.W.A.N.A. actors who don’t just want to go up the shifty, potential terrorist roles that Hollywood coughs out. She said shows such as the Netflix comedy series “Mo,” about comedian Mo Amer’s life as a Palestinian refugee living in Houston, Texas, have opened doors for people like her.
Modern acting life is in some ways simpler than ever: there’s less of that traffic jam struggle depicted in the 2016 movie musical “La La Land.” Now, Damouni shoots a self tape audition at home with her phone reading her part, and sends it in. A handful are picked for a Zoom-type callback, and from there, the best meet directors in person. It saves a lot of driving, but it does mean you have to have a sweet home set-up, and a good scene partner.
She credits Dré Slaman, the Portland actor who plays her mom, Suzan, as being an “amazing, generous scene partner. She was already cast, and even over Zoom, Dré gave me so much to work with. It was just like being in a scene with someone and really feeling like they’re present.”
“American Fast” is an ART commission and National New Play Network (NNPN) Rolling World Premiere.
“It’s about this person’s relationship with her mom and people in her life and ambition. The play discusses in such a nuanced way how especially with women, it’s an added thing to our makeup. She’s a Muslim basketball player, rather than just an athlete. It makes it relatable, because everyone can see themselves in that mother-daughter relationship, in the boyfriend-girlfriend relationship and in the relationship with the coach. Basketball is just like a vehicle to tell the (story).”
TV made Damouni want to act as a child. In Australia, tea-time fare on TV was “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “The Nanny” and “Seinfeld”.
At 17 she left Perth for New York City and the Lee Strasberg Institute, the acting conservatory. Her dad, from Lebanon, had lived there and always praised it as the West’s great melting pot, so she gave it a try. “My parents are not your typical immigrant parents, they’re so supportive,” she said. After several years of improv (The Upright Citizens Brigade) and small stage roles she moved to Los Angeles for more screen work, although she still loves the commitment of rehearsing this play over Christmas and tackling an intense three-week run.
“There’s nothing like being in front of a live audience and sharing that experience that no one’s ever going to have again.”