I was one of the people who opted to not give my phone number and participate in the app group messaging so it was very profound when people from the audience started speaking lines. I assumed they were planted but when I realized there were so many of them they couldn't be it was a really startling effect. The way he used this technology made it really interactive and drove his points home about complicity, agency, and the good and bad effects of these types of communities.
"The Believers Are But Brothers" explores the darkest corners of the internet
Last night it felt like Javaad Alipoor's The Believers Are But Brothers started in the lobby of U-M's Arthur Miller Theatre. I was asked by a stranger for my phone number so I could be added to a WhatsApp group chat with a couple of hundred other people I didn't know for a discussion that ran concurrently with the play, including messages from Alipoor.
I complied but instantly questioned my decision: I had voluntarily given up personal info with no questions asked, just as all of us do every day on the internet, and I did so on the same day it was reported that Amazon's Jeff Bezos had his phone hacked by malware sent via WhatsApp by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The Believers Are But Brothers, co-directed by Alipoor and Kirsty Housley, explores how technology and the internet can make people compliant, reactionary, or radicalized. But Alipoor didn't write Believers to slam our reliance on screens and the World Wide Web. Standing on a minimalist stage decorated by a plastic folding table hosting a computer-gaming setup, a large video screen, and the lurking presence of a headphone-wearing man (Luke Emrey) whose eyes were fixed on his laptop, Alipoor talked about how the internet has always been a part of his life and that he loves social media, even with all the caveats.
“I try not to make work that is either negative or positive, but just to look at what we do,” Alipoor told The Guardian on the eve of the BBC showing a filmed version of The Believers Are But Brothers, which explores the 4chan world that birthed the Gamergate ugliness, the radicalization of young men -- whether brown kids from the U.K. or white boys from California -- and the rise of the alt-right.
The son of a Muslim father from Egypt and a Catholic mother from Northern England, Alipoor alternated speaking to the Ann Arbor audience about the show's creation, sitting down and donning a gamer headset to talk about internet culture into a webcam that displayed on the stage's screen, and standing stage left to recite a tale of two U.K. youths who travel to Syria to join ISIS. There wasn't really a fourth wall to be broken.
While Alipoor calls his work "political theater" in the program essay commissioned by UMS, which brought the show to Ann Arbor as part of its No Safety Net 2.0 series, he's not didactic. Later in the essay, Alipoor writes, "For me, political theater isn’t about that at all. It’s about taking a problem -- in the case of The Believers Are But Brothers, the relationship between extreme politics, masculinity, and the internet, and sharing that with an audience. So, I hope what might once have been a question that felt intellectual feels visceral, emotional, and centered in the gut."
The Believers Are But Brothers is all of that because of Alipoor's skills as a writer and speaker. While the moody and tense atmosphere provided by lighting and sound designer Ben Pacey, sound designer Simon McCrory, and video designer Limbic enhanced the production, The Believers Are But Brothers would still be compelling even if Alipoor were accompanied by nothing more than a microphone. His facility with language is that impressive.
The WhatsApp aspect of the show was optional, but those who did sign up for the group chat were able to answer questions Alipoor posed, such as “How many Muslims live in the UK?” and "How many have joined Isis?" But the earnest answers from the crowd, as well as their friendly selfies, memes, and greetings, were interrupted by menacing messages such as, "Fucking whiney feminists. You make shitty games nobody likes. Thats [sic] it. Nobody will care when you die" from a U.K. number. These texts were part of the show, emanating from the Believers' production team, but they were still creepy and gave us a peek into the cesspool side of the internet.
As people were taking their seats before the approximately 65-minute show began, Alipoor sat with his back to the audience and played a first-person shooter with the volume turned all the way up. It might seem incongruous to begin the Believers that way since Alipoor didn't play a gamer troll in the performance; he spoke as a playwright or as a journalist who was presenting a story. But by sitting at a computer and playing a violent game that might be a favorite among some susceptible or radicalized kids, Alipoor was offering a view that he's not any different from other nonextremist humans who spend a huge part of their lives playing bloodthirsty games, whether they're young Muslim men like himself or many of us in the audience.
As Believers started to wrap-up, Alipoor asked the audience to look at WhatsApp and recite the last lines of The Brothers Are But Believers together, with these instructions:
This is the ending I have written
I'll send it a sentence at a time and I'd like you to read it. Don't worry about the order, just shout one out when you feel like it.
It doesn't matter if you speak over each other. Group's [sic] have a way of working these things out ;)"
As people spoke the last lines about how we've exchanged staring at inky black skies dotted with stars for tiny glowing pixels, the audience sounded like a cult -- but also like a community.
Once The Believers Are But Brothers' final line was read, people clapped, gathered their belongings, and started to leave the WhatsApp group chat. But the conversation was still visible -- as were everybody's phone numbers, including mine.
Giving up some privacy is the choice I made to experience the full effect of The Believers Are But Brothers, but it's something we all do every day online, often to be part of a community -- whether it's with friends and family on Facebook or in the darkest corners of 4chan.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
"The Believers Are But Brothers" continues through Sunday, January 26. UMS's "No Safety Net 2.0" series continues through February 9.