By Jordan Wright (Photo/Teresa Wood)
What sort of vacuum will the withdrawal of U.S. troops create in Afghanistan? And what will become of the Afghan men and women who aided the Americans and are left behind?
Arena Stage playwright-in-residence Charles Randolph-Wright poses those questions in his romantic drama, “Love in Afghanistan.” Set in the war-torn city of Kabul, this production focuses on hip-hop superstar Duke and his Afghan translator Roya, who discover their similarities and interpret their struggles in very different ways.
Duke is at the height of his music career, and Roya, a women’s rights advocate, has risen through the ranks, becoming one of the most sought-after translators in the city. When she’s assigned to Duke during his concert tour at Bagram Airfield, they become enmeshed in each other’s lives.
The four-character play includes Roya’s father, a translator named Sayeed, and Duke’s mother Desiree, a senior vice president with the World Bank. All four become caught in a dangerous and complex trap that has political and emotional consequences. Lies of convenience and lies of survival weave the multilayered plot together.
Melis Aker provides us with an intensely riveting performance as Roya, an assertive, modern-day Middle Eastern woman raised as a boy. (A little known but widespread practice known as “bacha posh,” meaning dressed as a boy, is how a girl is raised as a boy when a family has no sons.) Joseph Kamal plays Sayeed, giving the audience a subtle and moving portrayal of a protective father who nevertheless admonishes his daughter by reminding her: “A woman must not shame a man.”
As the American mission winds down, complications arise for Roya and her father. They need visas or fare persecution for aiding the Americans. This is where the play’s present-day setting syncs up with real-world politics.
Dramaturge Linda Lombardi provides this salient factoid in the program: The United States promised to give visas to those Afghans who, risking their safety and security, assisted the country’s efforts during the war. A special immigrant visa program was created to assist Afghan locals working with the U.S. military.
As a direct result of their work, their lives and their families are now in danger. To date, the State Department has granted only 22 percent of the visas allocated. Adding to the authenticity, Randolph-Wright turned to Janet Napolitano, former secretary of Homeland Security, to vet the script.
Will Roya and Duke escape the suicide bombers and conquer the Taliban’s suppression of women’s rights and education?
“We live our lives with fear. Not in fear,” Roya tells him. “In fear means that you have given up.”
But while translating for a suspected jihadist, Roya becomes a scapegoat for a terrorist incident.
Khris Davis steps convincingly into the role of Duke, a middle-class rap artist who talks the talk and has the moves to match. Davis lights up the stage with ease. Dawn Ursula is marvelous as his mother, the high-powered career woman who discovers the meaning of romance.
Adding irony to the production, the stage floor features an enormous scarlet-hued Persian rug once belonging to Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who crafted a constitution that allowed for a parliament, free elections, women’s rights and freedom of speech.
It’s hard to believe that was just 40 years ago.