At one point in Henry Naylor’s one-act play “Angel,” the main character teaches her tough, brawny father how to sing and dance to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”
The moment is humorous, even light, in the face of the play’s serious subject: the real-life story of Rehana, a young Kurdish woman who drops out of law school to become a sniper in the Kobanî region of northern Syria.
This juxtaposition of the solemn and comedic, of gravity and levity, is indicative of Naylor’s career. Working alongside Rowan Atkinson, Andy Parsons and other British comedians, he started off writing for comedy and satire shows. He reveled in tackling subjects others were afraid of, he said.
“Whenever there was a news story about the Irish Republican Army, or a bomb had gone off in London, all the other writers would be scared to write it, but I thought, no, that’s where you prove yourself as a writer,” Naylor said. “So I would deliberately try to challenge myself to try and find a funny angle.”
This evolved into a desire to tell more in-depth stories by writing plays, he said. “Angel” is the third play in Naylor’s “Arabian Nightmares” trilogy, which focuses on different stories out of the Middle East. The first two were “The Collector,” about the Abu Ghraib prison torture, and “Echoes,” which draws parallels between a modern-day Jihadi schoolgirl and a Victorian colonist in Afghanistan.
Naylor said he initially envisioned “The Collector” as a comedy. But as he did the research, he realized the subject matter was too sensitive to receive a comedic treatment.
“I’d started to develop an insight, which I think some people didn’t have, and I really want to put those thoughts across,” he said. “So as a result, I wrote a straight play. I kind of stumbled into it. Having done that, I think I’ve found I’m a better playwright than I was a comedy writer.”
Amber Day, author of “Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate,” said comedy and satire are key aspects of examining politics and global issues.
“Satire works when you want to draw attention to hypocrisy on society or societal behaviors — the things we tell ourselves are true that might not be,” Day said. “Satire is very good at getting at those inherent hypocrisies. And it doesn’t have to be funny; it can be very raw and gut-punchy.”
Avital Lvova, the sole actor in “Angel,” said Naylor’s inserted humor helps audiences relate to Rehana.
“I think the comedy comes into play in a big way,” she said. “It’s a serious play, but there’s a lot of charming, funny bits with Western references that make Western audiences understand and connect to those characters.”
Naylor took care to inject “Angel” with specific references to Western pop culture — like “Boston Legal,” “Star Trek” and Justin Bieber — and study young Middle Eastern women in an effort to keep with how Rehana might actually speak.
“You try to get into a state where you know the characters so well and so intimately that you can write almost in their voice without thinking about it, instinctively,” he said. “It’s almost like turning yourself into a bit of an actor.”
The real-life story of Rehana, nicknamed “the angel of Kobanî,” is a bit blurry. There are stories that she killed over 100 members of ISIS. Rumors have spread on social media of her death, twice. Rehana might not even be her name.
The specifics of the woman don’t matter as much as the concept of her, Naylor said. Women, especially women in the Middle East, do not usually get to share their narratives in widespread media.
“The press seems to be very male-centric in the stories it’s telling,” he said. “I think those stories are a bit boring and done to death, certainly from a drama perspective. I think the experiences of women are unreported and just as extreme and need to be told.”
While many Americans are at least nominally familiar with the region’s political unrest, many of the more specific horrors are lost through censorship, Lvova said.
“So many people don’t know what’s going on, how people are being treated in the Middle East,” she said. “We put them into these boxes, and this is what we see in the media, but we don’t see the other side of things. The media shows us what they want to show us, so I think this is why it’s so important to do it with art.”
Day said the desire to transform horrific incidents into something entertaining stems from many different impulses.
“Sometimes, it’s a way of being able to look at the horrible and make it a little more manageable,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just drawing attention to something — we might have compassion fatigue, we might not even want to look at it. Sometimes it’s about drawing attention to something that hasn’t been covered adequately.”
While the subject matter might be tough for some audience members, the issues “Angel” deals with are worth the potential discomfort, Lvova said.
“I think it’s very brilliantly written and I’m very proud that I can tell this story,” she said. “I’m not just doing a play; I’m doing something that matters.”
Beth Lindly is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.