BWW Reviews: Cultures Collide in Thought-Provoking LOVE IN AFGHANISTAN at Arena Stage
Iraq. Afghanistan. Or even US military intervention in the Middle East. True, there have been countless theatrical pieces which have focused on these places and issues in the last decade or so, many of which have played to eager, politically-informed crowds in our fair city. As such, one wonders if there's anything left to say in a theatrical piece that hasn't already been said. Charles Randolph-Wright's newest play, Love in Afghanistan, while it takes place in Afghanistan (as the title suggests) shortly before the withdrawal of US troops, is different from the war in the Middle East pieces we've seen as of late. That's a good thing.
Even more of a good thing is that, while it does demonstrate a modicum of solid understanding of Afghan culture specifically - for example, the practice of bacha pash or (girls/women) dressing as a boy - it also touches on more universal themes of cultural collision, gender roles and inequality in patriarchal societies, and how social position can inform how we interact with one another without being too heavy-handed. Add to the mix a mostly strong cast of actors, capable direction from Lucie Tiberghien, and highly artistic design elements, there are a lot of key ingredients that are likely to make the theatre piece - and this production specifically - a successful and promising one.
However, there's an unfortunate fundamental problem with the construct of the script. Even if we put aside the raised eyebrows that might ensue among the informed audience members about some of the fundamental details in the script - how interrogation is practiced, the role of interpreters on a military base, security practices at Bagram Air Base (where a good portion of the story is set), and how US 'celebrity' visitors are handled at these facilities - there are still some other more apparent challenges that simply relate to how the story is told.
Namely, there's a concern as to what the story actually is and why it is focused on so many things.
The plot, initially, is very simple. Duke (Khris Davis) is a young American hip hop artist born to a life of privilege in Washington, DC that's visiting Afghanistan to entertain the troops at Bagram Air Base. He requests a certain interpreter - the very pretty, very capable and passionate Roya (Melis Aker) - for the length of his stay. At first the interaction is awkward, but the two develop a friendship despite the cultural gap between them. Whether romance is in the air is up for debate.
An unsanctioned visit off base to secure some precious lapis stone leaves Duke and Roya - taking on another persona as a boy just as she did as a bacha pash child - at the site of an insurgent attack just as Duke is learning more about what makes Roya who she is. Roya's position as an interpreter that has participated in interrogations, and as a result her possible access to those that might be responsible for perpetrating the attack, makes some question her involvement. As the public relations and security fallout becomes more apparent, parental figures get involved - Roya's interpreter father Sayeed (Joseph Kamal) and Duke's Jamaican-born, successful mother Desiree (Dawn Ursula) who has an important career at the World Bank. Throw in a visit of all four to Dubai, a marriage proposal, some love-making, and a couple interrogations of all four characters, we get elements of an original play, fragments of what might (someday) constitute a Homeland episode, and something we might see on a soap opera or Lifetime movie.
With one exception (the well-drawn character of Roya), it's difficult to care about the characters because they are largely archetypical. This challenge is made more apparent by the largely schizophrenic story which places them in situations - some of which are plausible and others that might not be - that are pretty much here, there, and everywhere.
This is not to say, however, that the actors do not rise to the challenge and hide some of what may be some of the script's inherent weaknesses.
Aker is simply phenomenal as the conflicted and complex Roya. Driven, savvy, and wise, she never becomes a caricature of what some American theatre artist might expect an Afghan woman in pursuit of social justice for all might look like and gives a compelling and natural performance. Davis is likewise mostly suited to playing a young man that might write and perform hip hop music, but hasn't exactly lived as a 'gangsta.' As he struggles with being a celebrity and as a young man in search of meaning, audiences can clearly see his well-meaning intentions and inner-conflict.
As actors, Aker and Davis prove adept at displaying the awkward yet at time comfortable chemistry between their two characters and leave the audience guessing as to whether there is a real romance budding between them.
As the parental figures, Kamal and Ursula give solid performances as professionals that are also parents wanting what's best for their sometimes challenging children. Ursula's performance is particularly elegant and perfectly suited to her driven character.
The design elements are as strong as the acting.
Daniel Conway's minimal yet beautifully designed set, complete with a Middle East-inspired rug, is functional yet abstract enough that it can serve as an Afghan market, a facility on a military base (including an interrogation room), a posh hotel room in Dubai, to many more locations with no changes. While the need for a raised, metal, grid-like platform left me slightly perplexed, one has to admire the simple artistry at play in the overall design.
Elisheba Itoop's marvelous and varied original music and sound design captured the flavor of the sounds and music of the region without being too overwhelming. Kathleen Geldard's costume design is also effective in demonstrating the cultural gap between the two characters while representing who they are and what they value as individuals quite well. I particularly liked how the wardrobe for the Roya character straddled the East and the West, much like the character. Mark Lanks theatrical and purposeful lighting also is a tremendous asset.
Overall, the production left me longing for more in terms of the script, but one has to give a hand to Arena Stage for taking on a world premiere play - one that shows promised if some fundamental issues are dealt with - and presenting it exceptionally well.
Running Time: 2 hours including an intermission.
Love in Afghanistan plays at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC - through November 17, 2013. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.