Arena Stage’s moving Love in Afghanistan follows an unlikely romance that blooms amid the chaos of present-day Afghanistan. An American rapper and Afghan interpreter overcome culture clashes, CIA interrogations, and sectarian violence to form a touching bond that bridges their wildly different worlds.
As rap sensation Duke first enters Bagram Air Force base in advance of a performance for American troops stationed there, he is greeted by Afghan translator Sayeed, who introduces his daughter and fellow translator Roya. Duke is immediately taken with Roya, whom he claims is like no woman he has ever met before.
The two converse on a giant woven rug within an austere military ready room. Set designer Daniel Conway frames Roya and Duke’s unexpected meeting by mixing ornate middle eastern accents with harsh steel platforms, as if to show the hastily constructed walls are struggling to keep out the ancient culture pressing in from all sides.
Music video swagger meets Muslim propriety as Duke and Roya discuss parallels and differences between American and Afghan culture. They share a love of poetry and conversation that transcends geography. They also commiserate over the dangers to youth living in urban areas, contrasting American gang violence with Afghan sectarian conflicts.
Playwright Charles Randolph-Wright feeds the two leads plenty of playful banter, which belies the darkness of the surrounding conflict.
Melis Aker shines as passionate, worldly Roya. She proves more than a match for Duke’s Hollywood act with her sly wit and knowledge of American culture, couched in a maturity beyond her years. As the surrounding conflict erupts violently onto the scene, Aker unleashes mesmerizing outbursts of emotion, issuing a full-throated defense of her once-proud country and decrying the injustice of Taliban rule. Her line “We live our life with fear, but not in fear” serves as an accurate microcosm of her courageous existence.
Philadelphia actor Khris Davis brings a charming blend of swagger and sensitivity to the role of Duke. Duke is a joker with surprising substance below his celebrity image. As he opens up to Roya, he peppers his speech with references to Afghan poetry, history, and culture. His hip hop act sometimes goes overboard, turning an otherwise serious exchange into self-parody; perhaps that’s just Randolph-Wright’s own sly commentary on the generally ludicrous nature of rap boasting.
Despite the leads’ growing chemistry, their banter sometimes isn’t enough to carry the action, As Roya and Duke chat alone onstage, the audience sits through several sleepy moments which feel more like watching a first date than a staged drama. Thankfully, veteran actors Dawn Ursula and Joseph Kamal inject new energy before long with strong performances as Duke’s mother Desiree and Roya’s father Sayeed.
Love in Afghanistan
Closes November 17, 2013
at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $50 – $105
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Kamal, meanwhile, paints a compelling portrait of a man torn between modern realities and ancient tradition. Below his positive demeanor when around his American masters and famous guest Duke, he harbors dim hopes for his disintegrating country and its corrupt leaders. He also shows his inner conflict over notions of gender equality with a late reversal of the freedom he has previously granted Roya to determine her own life.
Love in Afghanistan offers an emotional journey through complex themes of American military intervention and the endless middle eastern conflict, as told through the eyes of two star-crossed lovers. The actors leave everything on the stage and elevate the sometimes sleepy script into a valuable, insightful night of theater.
Love in Afghanistan by Charles Randolph-Wright . Directed by Lucie Tiberghien . Featuring Khris Davis, Melis Aker, Dawn Ursula and Joseph Kamal . Set design: Daniel Conway . Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard . Lighting Design: Mark Lanks . Original Music and Sound Design: Elisheba Ittoop . Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clarke . Dialects: Gary Logan . Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Ben Demers.
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