Theatre is about producing scripts into stage performances. Playwrights develop hundreds of scripts every year. Thousands of scripts fill library shelves. Many of these will be forgotten, or revived at some future date. Some become classics with regular productions, such as Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams. Scholars may categorize scripts in several ways: Comedies, Tragedies, Drama, Musicals, Romances, Histories… When attending a premiere of new script, we are inclined to try to figure out what category it reminds us of. Arena Stage promotes new works through it’s playwright in residence program, currently including Charles Randolph-Wright, whose script Love In Afghanistan is at their Kogod Cradle Stage.
If you have a young man and young woman, you expect romance. If the young man has a strong willed mother, and the young woman has a protective father, you expect a family drama. If you have a wealthy, famous man and a woman in a service career, you expect a prince-charming rescue comedy. If you have interrogations, you expect a court room suspense story. If you have political ambitions and introspection, you expect history or tragedy.
When you combine all of these elements, you have a script that does not fit our expectations. In Love in Afghanistan, Randolph-Wright keeps us in suspense because by drawing in these diverse elements, we cannot predict what will happen next. While he uses these as a plot devices to engage us, he also allows us to reflect on the larger themes about being honest and authentic. Again, Randolph-Wright confronts us with our expectations. For his characters to be authentic, they must also defy how we expect them to resolve the inherent conflicts. Will the young couple be united? Will the parents be able to guide and protect their adult children? Will each characters’ political ideals be consistent with their actions?
Love in Afghanistan takes place mostly in the Begram Air Force base, in Kabul. Duke (Khris Davis), a hip-hop rapper, has come to give some concerts to the troops. He requests an interpreter because he wants to interact with Afghan citizens, in addition to the military personnel. Roya (Meli Aker) is assigned to interpret for him. Her father, Sayeed (Joseph Kamal), has been interpreting at the base since the US forces established it in 2002. Duke’s mother, Desiree (Dawn Ursula) comes to the base from her international financial agency work in Dubai, after learning that Duke has been injured by a bombing while in Kabul.
The opening scenes are in essence interrogations. Duke inquires of Roya about her understanding of language. Sayeed questions Roya on her willingness to interpret for Duke, while she asks permission to interpret for the interrogation of a local man brought in for suspicious behavior near the base. Desiree sits under a harsh light, answering an unspoken deposition by military security about her son’s political activities.
The scenes occur on an open set. metallic platforms form three sides of an open square around the central area of the stage. This central open area is carpeted with a carpet from the palace from King Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. Most scenes are between only two of the four actors. Yet, for most of the play all four are on stage, sitting in darkened area or facing away from the audience, when not involved in the scene. This staging heightens the sense of intimacy of the play, but also the sense of presence of parents and children, regardless of what else occurs in each scene.
As the scenes progress, Randolph-Wright plays out a series of tableaus of our expectations, only to demonstrate that these will not work for these four people. We start with love at first sight between the flirtatious young man and coy young woman. We progress to confidences and trusts traded, which become used to betray other confidences and trusts. We are twisted around the brash, self-absorbed career-ladder climbing characters, who can then turn around and quote poets and philosophers. We learn about gender and sexual norms that allow characters to become other identities to pass from one social setting to another. We observe interrogations in which the person of interest can ask as compelling questions as they answer. We find characters calling favors because of their positions of power, to then have their rescue offers to be rejected. Ultimately, the accumulation of these scenes raises the question of how can these characters be honest when their survival relies on taking on facades that fit someone else’s expectations.
Yet, for us observing these scenes, we see glimpses of the authentic natures of each character in each scene. While the plot twist may keep us guessing, as we begin to understand the characters, we recognize that the decisions they make are quite logical within their authentic natures. In the final scene, Duke and Roya reiterate the flirtatious and coy questions and answers of the first scene. What was minimally said in that introduction now speaks fully.
In writing a script, a playwright has a challenge. Does he compose a piece that speaks to the time of the play, with the risk of becoming obsolete years in the future? Or, does he weigh in on universal themes which will connect with audiences decades and centuries later? Part of the power of Love in Afghanistan is the present-orientation. The crises are ones people face now. How does someone seeking fame, wealth, and power find intimate connection? What will happen to Afghan interpreters when the US troops pull out as scheduled next in 2014? What propels this script is the unknown factors which guide the characters’ decisions. What propels history is the ambiguity of prediction of future events.