The Believers Are But Brothers Takes Tech & Theater Down a Dark Web Rabbit Hole
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
Trigger Warning: The following post contains adult themes and subject matter that may be traumatic or upsetting to some readers.
The Believers Are But Brothers
We live in a time where old orders are collapsing: from the post-colonial nation states of the Middle East to the EU and the American election. Amid all of this, a generation of young men find themselves burning with resentment, without the money, power, and sex they think they deserve. Written and performed by Javaad Alipoor and co-directed by Kirsty Housley (who also co-directed Complicite’s The Encounter), this multimedia show weaves together stories of three disaffected men and their journeys to radicalization, exploring the smoke and mirrors world of online extremism, anonymity, and hate speech.
New University of Michigan University Musical Society President Matthew VanBesien says that UMS' newest production, The Believers Are But Brothers, is a play all about addressing the elephant in the room in current U.S. society--that radicalized young men are not only produced overseas by violent extremism in Muslim countries. Extremists are also produced from our own culture, where our technology, social media networks, and the dark web all play a role in disseminating propaganda here at home.
Javaad Alipoor grew up in England in a family that was half Iranian, half English, with his mother converting from Catholicism to Islam when she married his father. He says that he is not religious in any practical way. This comes through in the piece, which is much more focused on the dark way that young people conversate online than on any of the subject matter they are discussing.
VanBesien says that this theater piece explores technology directly, but one thing that has surprised him and the rest of the University Musical Society is how technology has influenced the theater community indirectly in the opposite way than they expected. With the rise of technology in online entertainment and media, attendance at their in-person theater and musical productions has actually risen. "We expected the opposite to be the case," VanBesien says. In an era when people can easily Netflix, something is drawing people back to the theater for live performances like these, as well as the community discussions and events surrounding them.
VanBesien tells Cronicle that what UMS looks for in a theater piece like Believers Are But Brothers is "something that can move beyond the stage." What does that mean? Political discussion, events beyond the theater production itself, and a multimedia event that has a lot of people talking. Covered by The New York Timesand The Guardian, this play has widely been praised as "an extraordinary teched up show" (The New York Times), and "complex, masterly" (The Financial Times). Honestly, on first glance the piece seems to be a combination of low-hanging political fruit (it's easy to say harassment and propaganda are bad, but how much is technology the center of that issue?) along with essential analysis of the violent culture of harassment that has accelerated in recent years around media, online community, and hate groups. Time will tell how this play resonates with the general public.
Be warned that subject matter and the interactive nature of the show can be upsetting and are not for everyone. Viewers in the theater are asked to join a private WhatsApp group chat as part of the show, which allegedly turns from amusing to dark in short order as part of the experience of harassment online. Themes include misogyny, racism, the alt-right, ISIS, and more.
Tickets go on sale for Believers Are But Brothers August 7th at UMS. What do you think about tech being explored in this way through political commentary and theater? Let us know in comments, or if you have attended a play like this one and what your experience was like.