“All American Girl” asks “who will save the children?”

InterACT Theatre Company’s “All American Girl” is a well-written, compelling one act play by playwright Wendy Graf that’s ably directed by Anita Khanzadian. This one-woman show is, for the most part, well-acted by Annika Marks (alternating with Jeanne Syquia), who incarnates the title character Kathleen at various ages and in a variety of other roles, including briefly playing male characters. The part is very demanding and for the most part Marks acquits herself well, although the seven year old version of her Katie struck me as forced and full of mannerisms.

The sound by Joseph Slawinski is good, as is Carol Doehring’s lighting, which includes some simple but effective visual effects. Joel Daavid’s set is minimal, consisting largely of chalkboards, which underlines the didactic nature of this theatrical meditation on what turns an ordinary young Christian woman into a Islamicist terrorist. As press notes put it:

“Who will save the children?” “All American Girl” follows Katie, a bright and attractive girl committed to rescuing innocents from hardship and poverty, as she evolves into a passionate extremist. How does a seemingly ordinary American kid become radicalized? Is violence ever justified?”

The ironically titled All American has the veneer of being one of those “ripped from the headlines” docu-plays. In @This Stage Magazine, Graf said that the protagonist was inspired by the U.S.-born wife of one of the Boston Marathon bombers. The dramatist also told @ This Stage that she wanted to focus on the “humanity” of her character and not on the play’s “politics,” but like much of “All American Girl” this is subject to debate. Marks’ portrayal is certainly all too human but there’s no getting around the fact that, like a Brecht play, this is a primarily politically-themed drama. Some may quibble and argue that it is first and foremost concerned with religion, but what’s called “Islamic extremism” seems to be more of a political than a religious phenomenon.

As this is such a political piece (KPFK radio host and leftwing stalwart Michael Slate even moderated a post-show discussion at the Lounge Theatre on July 18), this reviewer feels it’s incumbent to make political observations regarding the play and its politics. In an attempt to explain Kathleen the play goes back to her childhood. But the decisive factor in converting this female who had been involved with anti-abortion Christian fanatics was that she happened to meet and marry Igbol, a Muslim man.

However, he does not have the same name as one of the Boston Marathon bombers (although his wife was named Kathleen) and furthermore, Igbol is not Chechen. Graf renders Kathleen’s husband as being an exchange student from India, who has encountered pogroms against Muslims by Hindu mobs in the sub-continent and prejudice from redneck slobs in the U.S.

Now, some may commend Graf on shedding light on another aspect of international Islam. Although it is a predominantly Hindu nation, with its vast population India’s Muslim minority makes it the world’s second largest country in terms of Islamic inhabitants. On the other hand, some may fault Graf’s crafting of an Indian connection as a convenient contrivance that removes Arabs, the Middle East and North Africa from the Islamicist equation and as such is a cowardly copout. Take your pick, Dear Reader!

We in the West are used to being bombarded by “news” depicting militant Muslims as perpetrators of barbaric, horrific violence – from Isis to Boko Haram to Al-Shabab to Al Qaeda to the Charlie Hebdo murderers and so on (all of which goes unremarked upon in “All American”). So certain theatergoers might praise Graf for pointing out that Muslims have also been victimized by discrimination and mass violence. But it’s extremely odd that drone warfare – a main element in Washington’s crusade against Islamic extremism that is generating disaffection amongst masses of people because of the “collateral damage” causing the deaths and injuries of many innocents, including children – is for some mysterious reason not stressed in the play. What a grievous omission.

For all of the play’s topicality – which press notes indicate was conceived around 2013 – “All American Girl” is already outdated. Isis is never mentioned (even the FX TV series Tyrant now has an Islamic State-type “Army of the Caliphate”). The so-called “lone wolves” inspired to wreak havoc in the West by Isis through a “self-radicalizing” process is not applicable to Kathleen in “All American.” (BTW, current use of the word “radical” by media, officials, etc., is yet another vilification of a word that had been mostly reserved for describing leftists.)

U.S. militarism

I saw this one-woman show the day a gunman committed mayhem at a military facility and recruiting stations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Clueless officials and pundits scratched their noggins, wondering why a terrorist would attack armed forces-related venues? Gee, I don’t know, Sherlocks – could it possibly be because the U.S. military willy-nilly invades and bombs Muslim nations, from poor immiserated Iraq to Libya and beyond, and arms nuclear-powered Israel as they bomb defenseless Gaza back to Gen. Curtis E. LeMay’s stone age?

In America, we’re supposed to have freedom of speech — as long as you don’t use your “free speech” to criticize those “defending” that same liberty with unprovoked attacks. The military is supposed to be above criticism in the so-called “land of the free.”

For instance, look what happened on the presidential stump to candidate Trump when the blathering billionaire belittled Sen. McCain at a July 18 conservative conference of evangelicals, questioning whether this warmonger is a “war hero.”

As filmmaker Michael Moore wrote in his 2008 election guide: “McCain flew 23 bombing missions over North Vietnam in a campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder. During this bombing campaign, which lasted for almost 44 months, U.S. forces flew 307,000 attack sorties, dropping 643,000 tons of bombs on North Vietnam (roughly the same tonnage dropped in the Pacific during all of World War II). Though the stated targets were factories, bridges, and power plants, thousands of bombs also fell on homes, schools, and hospitals. In the midst of the campaign, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara estimated that we were killing 1,000 civilians a week. That’s more than one 9/11 every single month – for 44 months.”

Bear in mind that Vietnam never attacked the U.S. Moore also described McCain’s final mission assaulting this nation that never bombed America: “on October 26, 1967… John McCain, flying in his A-4 Skyhawk, was hit by a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft artillery shell just as he fired off his missile at – not a military target, not an army unit, not a battleship – but an electricity generating station that supplied electrical power to a number of neighborhoods. The target, according to McCain, was in ‘a heavily populated part of Hanoi.’ Heavily populated. A plane from the sky raining missiles down on a heavily populated area of a nation’s capital,” that had never attacked America.

Have McCain or any of the other war criminals who supported the Iraq invasion been charged with crimes against humanity? The main American I know of who has been tried in connection to U.S. war crimes in Iraq is – no, not Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Pearl, Wolfowitz, et al. I’m talking about Private Manning, who is now serving a lengthy prison sentence. And what was this soldier’s “offense”? Revealing American atrocities in Iraq.

Meanwhile, back at the review:

At least “All American” has the courage to take on Western militarism, to denounce “imperialistic” policies and to express moral outrage at the slaughter of Muslim children (although the play never mentions the countless innocent Muslims, including kids, slaughtered by Isis and other Islamicist zealots). The play dares to point out that if you go around the world hitting hornets’ nests with sticks you might actually get stung.

But at least one of the targets Kathleen and her erstwhile “All American” fanatical comrades choose to strike is pretty obscure and harebrained, exposing the murky “reasoning” (or lack of) of terrorists. Terrorism is a despicable tactic. Attacking innocent unarmed civilians is morally reprehensible and the means often used – suicide bombings, beheadings – are as repulsive as drones, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo torture. As most children know, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” No matter how just one’s cause is and righteous one’s outrage is, slaughtering noncombatants – often including children, elders, etc. – is so repugnant to the public that it does a grave disservice to those aggrieved victims whom terrorists claim to be acting on behalf of (even if they have not been asked to do so by the injured parties and in these destructive ways). This is especially true if other means of legitimate protest are available.

Jeremy Kagan’s “Katherine”

One last thing about Graf’s play: It struck me as being similar to Jeremy Kagan’s far superior 1975 made-for-TV movie about an antiwar domestic terrorist called “Katherine” (not Kathleen. In “Katherine,” Sissy Spacek plays another all American girl who eschews middle class and white skin privilege, participating in activities such as a Freedom School in the segregated South during the Civil Rights movement and interacting with South American guerrillas (unlike Kathleen, who is involved with rightwing Christian fundamentalist fanatics, which reveals her penchant for zealotry and extremism). Increasingly radicalized in particular by the Vietnam War, Katherine Alman turns towards armed struggle. Katherine’s partner, Bob Kline (played Henry Winkler) may have been inspired, in part, by Weatherman Bill Ayers. Spacek’s character seems based on a member of the Weatherman faction of SDS, Diana Oughton, who met her fate in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970. Like Kathleen, Katherine warns against the perils of terrorism and the injustices that mass manufacture it.

InterACT Theatre Company presents All American Girl Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. at the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038. For more info: (818)765-8732; www.InterACTla.org. The show has been extended to August 30.

Photo: Annika Marks.  |  Rick Friesen


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.