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Love in Afghanistan at Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 25, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

What sort of vacuum will be created when U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan and leave behind the Afghan men and women who aided the soldiers’ mission?  Arena Stage playwright-in-residence, Charles Randolph-Wright, poses that question in “Love in Afghanistan”, a romantic drama with sanguinity.  Randolph-Wright, who had never visited the country, got some help from former Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, who vetted the script for authenticity.

(L to R) Khris Davis as Duke and Melis Aker as Roya in Love in Afghanistan - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Khris Davis as Duke and Melis Aker as Roya in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Set in the war torn city of Kabul, African-American hip-hop superstar Duke and his Afghan translator Roya 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 is assigned to Duke during his concert tour at Bagram Air Force Base, they become enmeshed in each others lives.

The four-character play includes Roya’s father, Sayeed, a translator; and Duke’s mother, Desiree, a senior vice-president with the World Bank assigned to the Arab kingdom.  All four become caught in a dangerous and complex trap that has both political and emotional consequences.  Lies of convenience and lies of survival weave the multi-layered plot together.

 Melis Aker provides us with an intensely riveting performance as Roya, an assertive, modern-day Arab woman, raised as a boy.  (Under a little known but widespread practice known as “bacha pash” meaning “dressed as a boy”, it’s how a girl child is raised as a boy when a family has no sons.)  Joseph Kamal plays Sayeed in a subtle and moving performance 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 they will be persecuted for aiding the Americans.  This is where the play’s present-day setting syncs up with real-world politics.  Dramaturg Linda Lombardi provides this salient factoid in the program:  The U.S. promised to give visas to those Afghans who, risking their own safety and security, assisted their efforts during the war.  A special immigrant visa program was created to provide visas to 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% of the visas allocated.

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 herself becomes a scapegoat for a terrorist incident.

Khris Davis convincingly clones Duke, a middle-class rap artist who talks in jive and has moves to match.  Davis lights up the stage in whatever scene he is in.  Dawn Ursula, as his mother Desiree, is marvelous as the high-powered career woman who discovers the meaning of romance.

Dawn Ursula as Desiree in Love in Afghanistan - Photo by Teresa Wood.

Dawn Ursula as Desiree in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.

Adding further authenticity and irony to the production, the stage floor features an enormous scarlet-hued Persian rug once belonging to King Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, who created a new constitution with a parliament, free elections, women’s rights and freedom of speech.  It’s hard to believe that was less than 40 years ago.

Through November 17th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 484-0247 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

(L to R) Joseph Kamal as Sayeed, Melis Aker as Roya, Dawn Ursula as Desiree and Khris Davis as Duke in Love in Afghanistan - Photo by Teresa Wood.

(L to R) Joseph Kamal as Sayeed, Melis Aker as Roya, Dawn Ursula as Desiree and Khris Davis as Duke in Love in Afghanistan – Photo by Teresa Wood.

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