by Charles Randolph-Wright, Resident Playwright
The idea for Love in Afghanistan began when I was here directing Ruined a few years ago. I read an article that I could not get out of my head about Afghan families and the practice of bacha posh (which translates as “dressed as a boy”). In many Middle Eastern cultures, specifically in Afghanistan, you must have a boy in your family to have honor. In the practice of bacha posh, one of the girls becomes a boy. At the age of five or six, her hair is cut, she takes a boy’s name, she dresses as a boy, lives as a boy, goes to school as a boy, and is able to do all the entitled things that boys can do in that world. However, when puberty hits, she goes back to being a girl again. This fascinated me. I walked into Molly Smith’s office and told her about this idea. I remember how huge her eyes immediately became and she said “you have to do this.”
I kept thinking, how do I tell that story? I don’t live there. I’ve not been there. I don’t understand that world. I needed to do it from the perspective of someone coming from the outside. I thought, who’s the most misogynistic person I can think of? Oh - hip-hop star! So, I imagined what would happen if Duke, a hip-hop artist, goes to Bagram Air Base to perform for the troops and he meets Roya, a stunning young Afghan woman who is an interpreter. He instantly falls for her, and as their journey progresses, they discover they both have two different identities.
Ultimately, what’s happened in the piece is all four characters actually have different identities, different masks that they use to function -- Roya, the young woman who still dresses as a man when she needs to leave the base where she works; the character of Duke grows up in an upper-class family and has a world view that’s different from most hip-hop artists, but he’s pretending that he has street cred; and Duke’s mother and Roya’s father both have public and private personas. All of those pieces, those secrets, those identities, come together and start blending together and, as I really broke this piece apart, I realized that’s what we all do to function. It’s not as extreme as a young girl becoming a boy but we all wear masks – personas – in life.
I had planned to go to Afghanistan this past summer, but obviously with everything that was happening and the strong suggestions not to travel there, I reluctantly thought, “All right Charles, you have to be smart and not go”, but then Afghanistan came to me. Many different Afghans have appeared in my life, and it’s almost been mystical how this has happened. Journalists, members of the U.S. military, students, translators, teachers, a carpet maker, and two young women who were bach posh have shared their stories with me, and have been invaluable in my process. Also, many people from the U.S. government who worked at or were involved with Bagram have opened their doors to help. Even the former head of Homeland Security gave me notes on my first draft. The passion from all of them has been inspiring.
I wanted Roya to be someone who wants to remain in Afghanistan in order to help her country and change her world – and I’ve met amazing young Afghan women who are doing exactly that. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with people who have lived the reality that’s in the script. These astonishing women I’ve met attend school here, but want to take what they learn and go back and help where they’re from as opposed to just leaving it behind. And the American perception is “Let me save you. Let me change you. Come here and become an American.” What we should be saying is, “Come here and let us have this dialogue, and then go home and help, because you helping your world, helps our world, helps everything.” That is something that has come out of this that’s really been amazing to me.
I’m so passionate about this process. I would not have been able to do this without my playwright residency – that I could explore the play the way I’ve been able to is the greatest gift an artist can have. I look back at the eight shows I’ve done here at Arena Stage - the kind of work I’ve been able to do – it is rare for an artist, especially an artist of color, to have this kind of opportunity. And I’ve wanted to work in the Cradle ever since it opened because it’s one of the greatest spaces I’ve ever seen. Telling this story in this space is thrilling. Telling this story right now in DC is thrilling. It is astounding to read in the news what we’re putting on stage. And if we are fortunate, what we do in some small way can make a difference.