Arena Stage Love in AfghanistanBy Bob Ashby • Oct 28th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Arena Stage: (Info) (Web)
Arena Stage-Kogod Cradle, Washington DC
Through November 17th
2:05 with intermission
Reviewed October 24th, 2013
Its title notwithstanding, Charles Randolph-Wright’s new play, Love in Afghanistan, now playing at Arena Stage, has little in it of the conventional love story. Duke, a hip-hop artist in country to entertain the troops (Khris Davis), and Roya, an Afghan interpreter (Melis Aker), do not meet cute; they get acquainted on the job. They have amusing exchanges with each other, but their conversation is not out of the romantic comedy playbook. They come to have a powerful emotional connection and to care deeply for one another, but neither ever says “I love you.” There is an undercurrent of physical attraction, but only one brief kiss. Coming from vastly different cultures, meeting in a violent place, they and their relationship are constantly under threat, but Randolph-Wright has no intention of giving us a romantic tragedy of the Romeo and Juliet or Madame Butterfly sort.
The play’s great strength is the complexity of its characters, all of whom, in their own ways, live on the privileged peripheries of their worlds. Aker’s Roya has a fierce, unquenchable passion to make her country a place where women can live freely and joyously. She does not fit anyone’s stereotype of a passive Afghan woman: she is educated and multilingual, has considerable familiarity with Western culture, and is a risk-taker. Significantly, she has lived part of her youth dressed as and with the freedoms of a boy, consistent with a traditional custom for families that do not have sons. In her devotion to her mission, her refusal to live in fear, and her unwillingness to accept cultural gender role prescriptions, she is a sister of Shaw’s Saint Joan.
When she believes it necessary, as in keeping some of her activities secret from her father or concerning the interrogation of a Taliban suspect, Roya can dissemble, but she is otherwise exceedingly direct in her dealings with others, a characteristic that appeals strongly to Duke. From an affluent background, Duke has always had security, acclaim, and women come to him almost without effort on his part. All entitled ego at first, concerned primarily with his own success, Duke is, in Davis’ rendering, something of a classic American innocent abroad, not fully realizing the implications of his actions for people in the country he is passing through. (In this, Duke can be viewed as implicitly standing in for well-intentioned but heedless American interventions in places like Afghanistan.) In his physicality and vocal tone, Davis shows his character’s growing maturity and willingness to confront the consequences of his choices as the play continues. Akers and Davis share a wonderful ability to portray their characters’ willingness to be surprised by one another, though the surprises are not uniformly happy: the action Duke takes in the second act in an attempt to protect Roya profoundly misunderstands her, to the distress of both.
In counterpoint to the young protagonists are Roya’s father, Sayeed (Joseph Kamal), and Duke’s mother, Desiree (Dawn Ursula). Sayeed, also a translator, is a liberal, understanding parent whose traditional attitudes are in tension with his support for his daughter’s independence and rebelliousness. (The relationship between Malala Yousafzai and her father came to mind.) Kamal plays him as a calm, courageous man who is all too aware of the precariousness of his and his daughter’s position, particularly as the Americans prepare to withdraw. He is too experienced in the world to be fearless. Ursula’s Desiree is a smart, well-connected, sophisticated and worldly, British-Jamaican World Bank official, protective of her talented son yet ready to call him to account when necessary. Her characterization leaves little doubt that Duke came by his charm and ego honestly: no self-esteem issues in this family. In some ways, the two parents have an easier time understanding one another than do their children, perhaps because the stakes in their relationship — which provides best comic moment of the evening — are not as high.
The script is very topical (even including a reference to Edward Snowden), and, if it is being performed 10 or 15 years from now, it will be interesting to see if it has the same impact. That said, Randolph-Wright performs a signal service in emphasizing the scandal of the U.S. failure to make visas readily available to men and women from Afghanistan and Iraq who have served American forces as interpreters and in other capacities, threatening to leave many of them stranded and open to reprisals from Taliban or other hostile forces in their home countries after the U.S. withdrawal. One can hope that a production here in Washington can have some impact on policy toward people in this situation.
There are didactic moments in the first act, and Randolph-Wright resorts to melodramatic devices at times to move the plot along (none, it should be said, outside the realm of credibility in a war zone). Characters face forward a few too many times to deliver an expository monologue or one side of an interrogation. However, Lucie Tiberghien’s direction keeps the pace and tone of the piece in good balance and maintains the play’s focus where it should be — on the evolving relationships among the characters.
The technical side of the production likewise supports the focus on the characters without distracting. Daniel Conway’s set design is based low metal grate platforms, particularly fitting in the interrogation scenes, decorated simply with functional office-type chairs and a large Afghan rug. Mark Lanks’ lighting can be harsh and closely focused in interrogation scenes, warm in scenes involving the characters getting to know one another, and switches to a lush red with white highlights when the characters have a few days outside Afghanistan in a Dubai luxury hotel. The sound design (Elisheba Ittoop) mixes music suggestive of Afghan culture with hip-hop and nicely subtle background noise, whether of a crowd in a market or the click of overhead lamps coming on for an interrogation.
An important theme running through the play concerns the masks that people wear. Roya assumes the guise of a boy to avoid her culture’s restrictions on women. Duke lives in the bubble of his celebrity, guarding himself against involvement with others or even with his own deeper feelings. Desiree speaks of the phenomenon of racial “passing” in her own family and as an analogy to Roya’s situation. The hopeful note in the play is that masks need not be impermeable, and that people — even those from very different cultures — are capable of genuinely meeting face to face, something that Kipling, writing about the same part of the world in the late 19th century, probably would have appreciated.
Photos by Teresa Wood
- Roya: Melis Aker
- Duke: Khris Davis
- Sayeed: Joseph Kamal
- Desiree: Dawn Ursula
- Director: Lucie Tiberghien
- Set Designer: Daniel Conway
- Costume Designer: Kathleen Geldard
- Lighting Designer: Mark Lanks
- Original Music and Sound Designer: Elisheba Ittoop
- Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann
- Casting: Jack Doulin
- Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clarke
- Dialects: Gary Logan
- Associate Lighting Designer: Zachary A. Dalton
- Casting Director: Dan Pruksarnukul
- Dramaturgical Research: Linda Lombardi
- Stage Management Assistant: Leigh Robinette
- Interim Production Manager: Marissa Larose
- Technical Director: Scott Schreck
- Properties Director: Chuck Fox
- Master Electrician: Christopher V. Lewton
- Sound Director: Timothy M. Thompson
- Costume Director: Joseph P. Salasovich
- Costume Shop Manager: T. Tyler Stumpf
- Directing Assistant: Amber Emory
- Sound Engineer: Aaron Allen
- Wardrobe Supervisor: Emily Grace Blackstone
- Light Board Operator: Michael Brown
- Assistant to the Lighting Designer: Nicki Rosecrans
- Props: Justin Titley
- Board Intern: Allen J. Berman
- Board Intern: Michele G. Berman
Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9844.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.