Years ago, UCLA alumna Jennifer Jajeh was just a young woman searching for her identity. Her search would take her from America to Palestine, and would later inspire her solo theater show “I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I’m Afraid To Tell You” ““ an autobiographical tragicomedy which has met with critical acclaim and outrage alike. The show just finished its run at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Jajeh’s introduction to directing and acting came early, when she would gather kids in her neighborhood to put on fully choreographed theatrical showcases. Jajeh directed, hired and fired her young performers ““ even her mother described her as a little directorial tyrant, Jajeh said.
This attraction to storytelling and penchant for perfectionism hit a cultural roadblock with Jajeh growing up as a Palestinian-American in San Francisco, she said.
“Coming from an immigrant community, (storytelling) wasn’t fully supported as a career path, or a real serious pursuit,” Jajeh said. “It was more seen as a hobby.”
After studying history and philosophy at UCLA, Jajeh moved to New York to pursue a theater education at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Conservatory, where she also took film workshops and worked behind the scenes on film projects.
In 2001, Jajeh shot her first film, a short documentary about Arab women living in New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The work veered away from political commentary and instead focused on the personal narratives of the women.
“I’m interested in people’s deeper emotional experiences,” Jajeh said. “In terms of September 11, (the film) was such a raw way to contextualize the experiences of a certain population at the time.”
Then came “I Heart Hamas,” Jajeh’s first big critical success, which she also wrote. According to Jajeh, the show chronicles the pain and humor of growing up with what she calls a hyphenated cultural identity ““ in her case, as a Palestinian-American.
The first half of the show, based in the U.S., explores outrageous situations Jajeh encountered as a result of her mixed culture. The slightly darker second half finds her in Palestine as the Second Intifada, a violent uprising against Israel, is taking place. According to Jajeh, the political overtones should not distract from the show’s more universal themes.
“While my character deals with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, she’s also trying to find a boyfriend and get a job and essentially find a place where she feels comfortable and accepted,” Jajeh said. “I think the show is able to humanize these bigger conflicts.”
“I Heart Hamas” director W. Kamau Bell said he met Jajeh when she enrolled in one of his solo performance workshops in San Francisco. She told him she wanted to write a theater show and, before even writing it, applied to the New York International Fringe Festival. She was accepted.
“I don’t know anyone else who would apply to a festival as big and renowned as New York Fringe Festival without having a show written,” Bell said. “It basically took six months to put a show together … and, really, perform it for the third time ever (at the festival) not knowing how it would be received.”
Matt Quinn, director of Theatre Asylum in Los Angeles, said in spite of the show’s provocative title, “I Heart Hamas” provides a new lens through which to understand the struggle with identity. On the show’s opening night, it received a partial standing ovation, split between Palestinian-Americans with whom the show resonated most strongly and others who just enjoyed the show, Bell said.
Since then, “I Heart Hamas” has evolved considerably to reflect Jajeh’s narrative vision more accurately. After touring the show for three years in about a dozen cities, Jajeh’s audience runs the gamut of backgrounds and ages.
“I’ve had suburban teenagers, 90-year-old Holocaust survivors, activists, people who are pro-Palestinian and people who don’t understand the conflict,” Jajeh said. “Or even people who just relate to the show because they feel like an outsider.”
According to Jajeh, by performing the show alone, she can break down ideas which are normally presented in a news-like, documentary style, and instead emphasize the human element.
“People have unnatural fears because they think the show is going to be a woman standing on stage yelling at them,” Bell said. “But it’s such a sweet, heartfelt show that, given another title, you wouldn’t be afraid of, but you might not pay attention to. And (Jajeh) is demanding to be paid attention to.”